I’ve been meaning to write about The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for so long, that I’ve forgotten absolutely everything I was going to say… but I wanted to hear your thoughts, so this will be a very brief thought about the book, and a wider question about the genre.
For those who don’t know, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale – which was hugely popular, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, and is still in the bestselling list on Bloomsbury’s website – blurs the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction. That is to say, doubtless Summerscale’s research is impeccable – but the pace and style of the book borrow much from fiction. It tells the story of an 1860 murder in a country house, ‘perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time[…] For the country as a whole, the murder at Road Hill became a kind of myth – a dark fable about the Victorian family and the dangers of detection.’
For it was this murder that kicked off the idea of the detective, which has spawned a whole, beloved genre of fiction. Mr. Whicher was his name, and Summerscale’s book is as much about his history, and the genesis of the detective, as it is about the gruesome murder of a young boy. Like the archetypal detective novel, the murder must have committed by someone in the house, one of the supposedly grieving family.
Summerscale’s book has the excitement of a detective novel combined with the historical interest of a true, important story – she can use real newspaper articles alongside pacy accounts of the events. It is a brilliant formula, which only occasionally flounders… because it is a true story, there can only be twists as ingenious as actually happened. The ending (for the murderer is unveiled) would doubtless be a dozen times more fiendishly plotted in an author’s imagination. But it would be churlish to complain – the idea for the book is very clever; the execution impressive, and Whicher’s legacy fascinating.
As far as I know, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is the first book to recreate a true murder in quite this way. And, unusually for such a successful book, I haven’t come across any copycat writers trying to reproduce the idea. So I’m asking you – do you know of anything in a similar vein, where fact and fiction blur? I can only think of books like Author, Author by David Lodge, where a true story is openly fictionalised – none where a true story is simply lent the narrative structure of fiction.
And, of course, your thoughts on The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? A book group favourite, I suspect huge swathes of Stuck-in-a-Book readers have read this, and I’m intrigued to know what you thought… Did you find Summerscale’s approach worked? And what on earth is she going to write next?