Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Truth is stranger than fiction

I've mentioned before that I enjoy listening to adult nonfiction, as I find it easier to tune out of (and then tune back in) the elaborate detail sometimes provided while listening rather than reading. I can't remember where I heard of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (British subtitle: or The Murder at Road Hill House; plus somewhere along the U.S. publication trail, the words A Shocking were added before Murder) but when I did, I knew it was right down my alley. The author, Kate Summerscale, posits that Mr. Whicher and the crime he investigated were Wilkie Collins' inspiration for his classic (long considered the first) detective novel, The Moonstone. As I was listening, I marveled at the drama of everyday life because this story does indeed have all the hallmarks of a rattling good yarn.

Samuel Kent lived with his second wife, the many children (eight?) of his first and second marriages, and numerous servants in a large house in rural England. He was your classic Victorian paterfamilias, tyrannical to family and employees, but concerned about what the neighbors thought. Several years earlier, he succeeded in declaring his first wife insane and had her committed to an asylum where she soon died. He then married his children's nursemaid. His older children were essentially banished to the nether regions of the house, while his wife and their children occupied the more comfortable rooms.

On the morning of June 30, 1860, the youngest son of the family -- Saville, just under four years old -- was found to be missing from his bed. Not too many hours later, his body was found stuffed in the privy with multiple stab wounds and a slashed throat. The local constabulary assumed an outside perpetrator, but soon it became clear that the murderer was familiar with both the property and the routines of Road Hill House. One of the brand-new detectives (there were only eight of them at the time) from Scotland Yard -- Jonathan "Jack" Whicher -- is sent to investigate. Pressure from Samuel Kent and a hysterical national press led to the arrest of the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, but she was soon released. To Whicher, Saville's half-sister Constance -- then 16 years old -- was clearly in the frame. But the Victorians' ideals of family couldn't support such a finding (and Whicher's evidence hinging on a missing bloody nightgown was circumstantial), and the charge was dropped. Five years later, she confessed to the crime. She was sentenced to hang; quickly commuted by Queen Victoria to 20 years incarceration. Following her release, Constance vanished.

And if you think that's the end of the story, many more surprises (unearthed in the 20th century) remain. I was riveted by what Summerscale uncovered and revealed in her very compelling narrative. While it doesn't read like fiction, as we and the author can only speculate about the emotions and motives of the individuals connected with the murder, the story of the Saville Kent murder certainly has enough twists and surprises that your average crime novel might look like an imposter when compared to it. Infanticide! Mental illness! Disease!! Miscarriage!! Romance with the governess!! Religious conversion!!! Sibling rivalry and intense sibling closeness!!! Shocking revelations to descendants!! A character who lives to 100!!! Even Charles Darwin and Jack the Ripper put in appearances.

The effortless Simon Vance narrates here. I say effortless not because he has put no effort into his narration, but because the reading is the clear, smooth work I have come to expect from him. His voice is both pleasant to listen to and utterly authoritative. He reads in a neutral tone to tell the story, but there are multiple opportunities here to add emotion and character as Summerscale includes many, many quotations from the multiple primary sources available to her. Vance's skilled use of accents to designate class differences helps to delineate the story's characters. As the 20th century revelations mount, he increases his intensity to bring things to an astonishing close.

The catalog entry for the audiobook says that it included a six-page genealogical table and house plan, which was long gone from the copy I had. It would have been helpful since the Kent children and servants eventually mostly blended together (plus, I really love a map in a book!), but I ended up just looking at a copy of the print version to satisfy my general curiosity.

Even before I learned that other minds were well ahead of me, I knew this story would make great television. (Here's the trailer, which has a few more spoilers than I've provided.) Shown in the spring in England, hopefully it will be on this side of the pond before too much longer. Like the book, just right for me.

[The image of Constance Kent is from The Encyclopedia of Murder (by Wilson and Pitman) and is now in the public domain; it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
Narrated by Simon Vance
HighBridge Audio, 2008. 9:45

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