As somebody who is not the greatest fan of non-fiction books, I took a little persuading before I got involved in Kate Summerscale’s meaty account of an infamous murder that took place in Wiltshire many moons ago. In fact, it was only because a fellow industry peer continued to recommend it that I finally gave in.
In 1860, a young child was murdered in a stately home belonging to the hugely wealthy Kent family and subsequently a detective was hired to investigate. It’s a fairly standard overview for a crime story that’s been told countless times, but what makes this book stand out is the detail in which Summerscale writes, observing the real-life traits of the characters as well as the many quirks of both the time and setting.
Interestingly, Jack Whicher is considered one of the very first true detectives to have ever existed. Before reading this book I had never considered a world without a police force and had no idea that the Met were the first unit put into place in the country. Neither did I know that the public vehemently rejected the idea of police as they felt uncomfortable with the notion of “spies” surrounding them in their daily lives. Having thought about it, I sympathised with this point of view. Imagine being told there would be people walking the streets who had the power to throw you in jail. It was, in many ways, a gross invasion of privacy, and this debate led to a ruling whereby police officers had to wear their uniform at all times, with an armband indicating when they were on duty. Before I knew it I was wondering what it must have been like to live at that time, which helped me get into the story on a far deeper level than I’d anticipated.
The more I read, the more I loved Jack Whicher. Being that he was such a close friend of Charles Dickens – who was deeply fascinated by his profession – made me consider that he may well be the original hero on which endless characters created in modern history are based. I found this incredibly appealing and wanted to know more about him.
Kate Summerscale had successfully created a likable antagonist through which I could fully care about the story and she continued to use the bizarre and interesting facts of the time to let the intrigue and horror grow. She captured superbly the hysteria that swept through Britain’s people who, until this case, believed their homes offered security. They had honestly believed that bad things only happened outside at the hands of rotten strangers, but this was a trial that would shatter the illusion. Nobody was safe. They could fall victim to anyone, anywhere, any time – even to a member of their own family.
As we learn of all the home’s residents, we sense that they each have secrets they are keen to hide and as the public pressure mounts to find and charge the murderer, we really get an insight into the pressures involved in such a case. The home’s workers and family members that were in the village of Road on the night of the murder are as suspicious and compelling as anything you will read in fiction, and I felt as though I was engaged in an addictive, immersive game of Cluedo.
As a writer myself, I have spent years learning how each character needs to be three-dimensional and that their back-stories should be fully fleshed out before a single word of story is written. Although this book is non-fiction, it is a great example of how the story benefits with fully rounded, complicated characters, each with unique flaws and goals.
The revelations in this book are truly shocking and in this day and age, with unlimited access to uncensored material, this is something I don’t say lightly.
Recently, I reviewed Gaston Leroux’sThe Mystery of the Yellow Room and criticised it for the fact it never let the reader guess what might have happened. Well, Kate Summerscale lets you consider endless possibilities before finally telling you the truth. She embraces readers to share what I assume was her own momentous journey of considering all the facts, of which there are thousands, before piecing it all together. The skill and craft needed to do this is immense and for this, the author must be heralded.
So there it is. Even if, like me, you aren’t the greatest fan of non-fiction, that won’t matter provided you enjoy learning rare historical facts about England or if crime and mystery is your genre of choice. If you hold at least one of these interests, there will definitely be something here for you.
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Thought-provoking and powerful, with an insight into the where the original British Detective might have come from.
Reviewed by Jody Medland
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