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Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale (trade, $16.00)

Just in case you think that our modern world with its modern technology ( e.g., Court TV) was responsible for creating the avid viewer of sordid legal proceedings (e.g., O. J. Simpson), or that somehow before modern media led us down the soiled path of voyeurism, we were virtuous and open-minded, it didn't and we weren't. Maybe we present-day people have elevated voyeurism to a "higher" level, but Kate Summerscale's reality-based book shows that humankind always has been right there, ready to participate in the hullabaloo surrounding a juicy scandal.

Summerscale has rummaged through a tower of books and other source materials to bring us the story of one of the first modern police detectives and his most spectacular and controversial case. She sets her stage well by adding an authentic background detail here and there, so her reader gets a real sense of the time, 1860s England. This is mystery as history.

Jack Whicher was one of the first Scotland Yard detectives. He followed clues (look for Summerscale's aside on the etymology of "clue"), looked to forensics and autopsies for information, and attempted to understand the psychology of motives. A long time after the fact, forensically speaking, Whicher is called in to help solve the murder of the three-year-old son of a middle-class couple. The case appears to be a locked room mystery, with one of the many inhabitants of the house certainly the murderer.

Alas, no suspect is found with the smoking gun in hand, the vial of poison in pocket, or the bloody knife in boot. Thus Whicher must rely merely on his suspicions. Suspicious detail after suspicious detail are laid out by the author as Whicher develops his circumstantial case, and his suspicions lead him to believe strongly that a specific person indeed did kill the child.

However, after Whicher presents his case before a judge, the citizenry -- alerted and aroused by the media, a surprisingly multitudinous bunch -- weighs in, "American Idol"-style. It seems as though for every individual suspect there is a vociferous group promoting his or her guilt. Whicher is alternately vilified and romanticized. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were influenced by the method and presence of Whicher, enough so that he is the model for some of their characters.

Summerscale presents us with an eminently readable tale. She draws us in slowly with increasingly dramatic revelations about the various characters. We are presented with everything from the mundane to the salacious, and all these details may have some bearing in the final analysis. Perhaps you, too, will be able to see why England went ga-ga over the case.

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