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145 of 151 found the following review helpful:
great true crime story!Apr 21, 2008
By David W. Straight
This is a wonderfully done true crime story of a murder in England in 1860. If that were all, we'd have an eminently enjoyable book. But this is also a social commentary and a history of the early detective story: you'll learn how and when the words "clueless" and "sleuth" entered the language, for example. You have a horrible murder of a 3-year-old boy in a manor house in the country. The outside doors, windows, and gates are all locked--and also, unusual for us nowadays, many of the interior doors were locked as well--preventing access to the larder, cellar, drawing-room, etc. So suspicion perforce falls upon the family and servants. This is before the days of forensic science--so it isn't even clear whether the child was killed by stabbing, throat-cutting, suffocation, or drowning. The local constabulary in this west England area are inadequate to the task in what very quickly becomes a sensationalist case, and so a detective from London is called in to investigate.
Detectives are new, only a couple of decades old, as are detective stories. Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher is Scotland Yard's best investigator (at the time, there weren't all that many). The child's family is not very well liked in the area, and the family itself has many unsavory secrets--including insanity. Summerscale relates Whicher's detective work and his growing fixation upon a 16-year-old sister. But what makes all of this particularly enjoyable is how Summerscale relates the sensationalism in the press, the plethora of theories as to the murder, the coming-forth of outsiders to confess, the initial belief in Whicher's abilities (followed by growing disbelief). There are wonderful descriptions of the detective novels of the time--including ones with female detectives--the public appetite for these stories, and the additions to the language (you'll see where clue/clew comes from). The child's nanny slept in the room with the child, who was taken during the night. Charles Dickens was one of the numerous people who put forth the theory that the child had discovered his father in bed with the nanny and had been killed to prevent him telling Mama. Actual solutions, however, were not readily forthcoming.
Whicher fell out of favor in the public eye--but he did pop up again in the other sensational case of the era--the Tichborne Claimant. (Hopefully, Summerscale will turn her prodigious talents to that case next). So what you get here is a fascinating view of the early days of detectivedom (if that's a word), the detective in fact and fiction, and the public's taste in literature. The book reads like a good detective novel, with well-portrayed characters: there are arrests, trials, maps, drawings, and photographs. A great book indeed!
55 of 57 found the following review helpful:
Fascinating account of a forgotten murderMay 02, 2008
By David W. Nicholas
We always think of detectives and crime-solving as things that have gone on for centuries. In actual fact, Edgar Alan Poe invented the detective story in 1841, and the next year the British set up their first detective police to solve crimes where the criminal wasn't immediately apparent. For much of the 19th century these individuals were essentially making it up as they went along, and dealing with a variety of public prejudices (bobbies originally had to wear their uniforms all the time, to avoid corruption and the possibility of them sneaking up on someone) and strange practices to invent, as they went along, the craft of crime-solving.
In 1860, 18 years after the detective department was founded (they had offices in a square in downtown London known as Scotland Yard, hence the name) a young boy was killed in rural England. His throat was cut rather viciously, and he was thrown into a privy. The house in which he lived with his family was very large, and since the doors were locked, it seemed inevitable that the killer must be either a family member or a servant. After two weeks of inexpert investigation, which solved nothing, the local police petitioned London to send a Scotland Yard detective. The one they got was one of four Detective Inspectors, Jack Whicher, who according to the author was one of the original detectives who essentially invented his craft. His assistant, "Dolly" Williamson, went on to be superintendent of Scotland Yard during the `70s and `80s.
Whicher settled pretty quickly on who he believed was the culprit, but he was unable to obtain a confession and had scant physical evidence. He made an arrest, but the family closed ranks, and ultimately there was no immediate conclusion to the killing. This destroyed Whicher's career. He wound up retiring from the police a few years later, and worked intermittently as a private detective in later years. Eventually he was vindicated, and the case wrapped up, but he was never reinstated.
I enjoyed this book immensely. So much of what the author recounts found its way into detective novels of later years that it's amusing, to say the least. The characters are interesting, and so are their fates. I enjoyed this book immensely, and would recommend it to anyone interested in true crime.
161 of 181 found the following review helpful:
Four books in one; and that's not a good thingAug 25, 2008
By Okie Writer
The reviewers here, especially the paid ones, do readers a disservice when they praise the mystery aspects of this book without emphasizing the unending details with which the author has bogged down the book. It's hard to believe these newspaper and magazine reviewers read the book in its entirety?
Is this a story of Jonathan Whicher and the creation of the police detective? Or a lesson in Victorian families? Maybe it's a general history of the origins of the detective in mystery novels? What it is not, is a well-edited, real-life mystery with historical details peppered in to add context. Someone give this book a real editor and reign in the ramblings of a research-happy writer.
It is obvious that the writer spent years compiling data and scouring diaries and other sources to include personal information to enhance the narrative. But the way they are used only serve to stall the flow of the story, not to enrich it. The writer interrupts herself so often, you could be excused for thinking there were multiple authors. There is so much repetition that you can begin to feel you've already read this or that paragraph.
This book is not a narrative, but a museum. Every detail, however mundane, is included. Everything the writer found in her research is in the book, many repeated several times. I applaud the author on her diligence and thoroughness in gathering every possible piece of data. In fact, I place some of the blame on the editor for not doing his/her job. A great researcher cannot necessarily be expected to be a great condenser. That's where the publishing company is supposed to come in.
There are a couple of good stories in this book. You will just have to wade through a lot of unnecessary facts to find them.
If someone had warned me, I'd have checked it out of the library instead of spending money to own this book.
16 of 16 found the following review helpful:
The Verbosity of Ms. Summerscale: A Rambling Text and the Near-Undoing of a Great BiographySep 23, 2009
By Brian J. Oneill
Summerscale had some great ideas for this book, but the execution left something to be desired. While the facts of the Road Hill murder case, the Kent family background, and the history of Jack Whicher, all made for interesting reading, the story was bogged down, as others have noted, by an overabundance of minute detail on EVERY topic. The author used such a dry, bland, scholarly tone, it was hard to tell if she was writing for the general public, aficionados of true crime and/or detective fiction, or a college psychology class. Her somewhat rambling, scattershot approach, digressing at the drop of a hat, ensured that this would not be a 'quick' read, but didn't exactly make me savor every word, either. I felt I did get some good insights into the major players, and perhaps more than I really needed toknow about societal mores of the Victorian era, and tie-ins(relevant or not) to psychological practices, especially Freudian theory.
As an earlier review noted, this book read like four books in one, yet, everything was put in wherever Summerscale felt like putting it. IMO, this diminished the intended 'true crime told in the style of a detective novel' narrative approach.
The final few chapters, summing up the rest of the principal figures' lives, helped make up for the seemingly endless, extraneous middle sections, and, if nothing else, gave me some leads for further reading in the 'vintage detective story' genre.
I can totally understand why some reviewers would be frustrated and give up before finishing this book. However, it was ultimately worth finishing. If you are truly interested in the broad panorama of 19th-century social life, in addition to the gist of the story,especially if you are a college student, give it a try. If you are looking for a straightforward 'true crime' book, and a break from studying, you'll find that here, too, but be prepared to do a lot of skimming.
39 of 46 found the following review helpful:
Painful - A disorganized memory dumpSep 23, 2008
By Douglas B. Moran
An enthusiastic newspaper review lead me to try to read this book. I expected a history with multiple threads: Victorian family life, the beginning of detection, the beginning of the detective novel, ...
As other reviews here have stated, the book hammers you with a mass of details, many of them irrelevant or tangential. The writing is very poor for this type of book - It is a dry "just the facts" rendering, what you might expect from a bureaucratic report meant to be filed away unread. An analogy is that the chapters are a collection of research notes that the author intended to come back to to write the book. Even at the level of individual paragraphs, the writing often does not flow smoothly.
Especially frustrating was jarring jumping between threads of the story: I would struggle through the blizzard of facts to construct a mental image only to have to start over on a different thread. I have read multiple other histories that managed to handle similar multi-threaded stories by disciplined presentation of the facts and connections between the threads.
After a couple of exhausting chapters, I jumped forward several times, found the same deadly dull writing and gave up.
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