In her introduction to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008), Kate Summerscale tells us that "[t]his book is modelled on the country-house murder mystery, the form that the Road Hill case inspired, and uses some of the devices of detective fiction. The content, though, aims to be factual" (xiii). Summerscale's project wears a number of intellectual hats: it aspires to be, simultaneously, a popular microhistory of a scandalous murder case, a literary history of modern detective fiction, and a sort of detective "faction" in its own right. Summerscale's story doesn't just analyze the Road Hill case, but actually tries to be the kind of narrative the murder inspired; the reader is invited to watch as new forms of story-telling coalesce into recognizable genre conventions.
To an academic reader, Summerscale's route to this end can seem dizzying. At any given moment, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher advances one or more of the following claims:
- Jonathan Whicher was one of the first modern detectives, alongside such figures as Charles Field (the inspiration for Bleak House's Inspector Bucket);
- Victorian contemporaries drew on Whicher and his associates to produce the modern image of the detective;
- Whicher's investigations in the Road Hill case both generated and were interpreted through the new genre of the mystery novel (the CSI effect, as it were);
- The Road Hill case inspired several canonical (and non-canonical) Victorian mystery and sensation novels.
Items #2 and #3 on my list should ring bells for many academics, since the argument that literary forms--and, now, other media--shape our understanding of lived experience has been out and about for quite some time. (See, for example, Judith R. Walkowitz's City of Dreadful Delight.) While Summerscale's claims themselves will probably raise no eyebrows, her method of proving them raises some difficulties. Here are a handful of instances:
As a gardener's son, Whicher was at ease among fields and flowers. Sergeant Cuff, the detective in The Moonstone, had the same background. (77)
...What Whicher thought he saw in Constance was as slight as what Mr Bucket detected in the murderess Madame Hortense, 'her arms composedly crossed . . . [but] something in her dark cheek beating like a clock'. And Whicher's conviction of his suspect's guilt was as sure as Bucket's: 'By the living Lord it flashed upon me . . . that she had done it!' Or, in the words of Wilkie Collins' Sergeant Cuff, the fictional detective whom Whicher inspired: 'I don't suspect. I know.' (87)
Similarly, Whicher acts "[l]ike the heroine of Andrew Forrester's The Female Detective" and has a "fictional double [in] Jack Hawkshaw" (97), and his thought processes are described by a quotation from the Diary of an Ex-Detective (139). The murderers "Maria Manning and Madeline Smith" find themselves in the same paragraph with Count Fosco's wife and the aforementioned Hortense (105), while one of the witnesses, Mrs. Dallimore, is a "a real-life version of a nineteenth-century fictional heroine: the amateur female detective..." (187). (Mrs. Dallimore, however, does not gain plaudits from the judicial system.) Constance Kent is "refracted into every woman" in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, where Summerscale also finds Whicher as "the figure of the tormented amateur detective Robert Audley" (217-18).
Once we get away from Summerscale's very enjoyable reconstruction of the case and its prosecution, then, a certain degree of sleight-of-hand kicks in. It's not just that the historical figures become models for the fictional ones, but that the two function interchangeably in Summerscale's argument, to the extent that Summerscale can "transplant" a fictional detective's mind into Whicher's in order to explain how he works (139, referenced above). At times, it seems that Whicher isn't like Cuff--he is Cuff; but then again, at other times, Whicher explains Cuff or is analogous to Cuff (or other fictional detectives). Summerscale both wants a real Whicher and wants to collapse him into fictional Whichers, some of which aren't very convincing as such. The Lady Audley's Secret example is a case in point: virtually nothing about either Summerscale's Whicher or the Victorian versions of Whicher adds up to Robert Audley. In fact, Summerscale finds Road Hill everywhere, to such an extent that I wondered if her own insight about the case's relationship to genre had blinded her, in retrospect, to how genre was shaping her own understanding of what the Victorians "saw."