Hazel McHaffie

Victorian England

Eyes closed but wide awake

Life chez nous is becoming very scrambled this spring.  Three weddings and a couple of conferences all involving long car journeys (of the several-hundred-miles-in-one-hop variety) … looming literary appointments … elderly folk needing tlc … family commitments … amongst the usual hmdrum responsibilities. Which is a long-winded way of saying, not much time to sit writing novels.

As far as the current story (about a family whose lives are devastated by a car crash) goes, I know I need to lift the mood somewhat. And I’ve identified the way forward: another secondary narrative thread. But it requires a lot of concentration to hang on to which of my characters is doing what, where and in what time frame; to place enough cues strategically without losing pace or flow. So, with everything else going on, it’s left to the deep recesses of the night-time brain to develop this new storyline.

Which reminds me of the narrator in the fictional Diary of an Ex-Detective (1959): ‘When I am deeply perplexed it is my practice to go to bed, and lie there till I have solved my doubts and perplexities. With my eyes closed, but wide awake, and nothing to disturb me, I can work out my problems.’ quoted in the The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I’m doing a fair bit of problem-solving with my eyes closed these days, not just during the long watches of the night, but also on those aforementioned long journeys – not, I hasten to add, when I’m in the driving seat.

But for those of you who haven’t made the acquaintance of late great Mr Whicher, here’s a summary. One summer night in 1860 the well-to-do Kent family went to sleep in an elegant Georgian house in Wiltshire. Mr and the second Mrs Samuel Kent, their children, their domestic staff. Next morning their world is blown apart by the discovery of the gruesome murder of one of the children. What’s more it seems that the perpetrator of the crime must be someone within the household.

The celebrated detective Jack Whicher from Scotland Yard is brought in to investigate but his conclusions fly in the face of the verdicts of the local police and others. He believes the daughter of Samuel Kent’s first marriage is to blame, but almost everyone else comes into the frame at some stage. And so powerful are the voices raised in opposition that Mr Whicher’s mighty reputation crumbles and he fades into obscurity. The true story only evolves gradually over many years.

The Suspicions of Mr WhicherThe book is a reconstruction of a real case but begins like a novel. Whatever its later shortcomings, hats off to Kate Summerscale for her meticulously detailed research. She weaves in the work of authors of the time, historical landmarks, other notorious cases, alongside her account of who said what, who did what, and when. Rather too many deviations, in my view, detracting from the pace of the main storyline. Probably why she needs to repeat points so often to remind the reader of the salient facts of this case. But in the process she brings into stark relief the harsh and capricious nature of the legal system of the day, with all its limitations. There’s no DNA evidence, no CCTV documentation, no sophisticated pathology result, to substantiate the circumstantial suspicions. The death penalty is meted out after short brutal trials. Public hangings are still a spectator sport.

And the class structure still divides. Whicher himself is seen by some as a greedy and inept working class fellow, meddling in middle class affairs. But by others as a fearless pursuer of the truth irrespective of class distinctions. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

His investigation certainly shines a light into a closed-up house, into the secretive world beneath the veneer of well-to-do respectability, into the divided loyalties above and below stairs, into the complex emotions of step-relations. Police procedure involves measuring breasts, examining night attire for bodily fluids, asking indelicate questions of nice young ladies – all in a context of Victorian prudery and secrecy. Sensational stuff for its age. It attracts huge media attention. And the echoes and repercussions go on for decades.

I enjoyed the clever piecing together of the fragments of a story from many sources. And the unravelling of a family’s life during that era. A clever idea adroitly executed. I wasn’t so keen on the time it took to tell the story and the repetitive elements. But it made me appreciate the fact that at least any false trails I might lay won’t lead to the gallows.

Hmmm, clutching at straws comes to mind!

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