I love a good Victorian detective novel. While “…Suspicions…” is not a novel, it is a really good read. Summerscale has carefully researched a true British murder case from 1860 that served as inspiration for sensation novelists such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. The dark secrets of a Victorian middle-class home are subjected to thorough scrutiny if not wholly exposed. Although the book is described as “A mesmerizing portrait of one of England’ first detectives…” the detective in question, Mr. Whicher, is not as fully developed as an historical personality as might seem. Summerscale works hard to leverage rather sketchy descriptions of his person to archetypal effect, a stretch in some instances.
The relationship between the events upon which the book is based and the development of society’s taste for the macabre in literature, however, is successfully brought to life. Summerscale successfully connects a tragic event to vocabulary we encounter today in literature that causes spines to tingle and gives us each the opportunity to judge our fellow men and women based on our own sense of right and wrong. Summerscale’s description of the origin of the word “clue” is an insightful example of how a metaphorical term may lose its vivid imagery even as it becomes embedded in the collective consciousness.
“…Suspicions…” is full of conflict, between classes of society, formal and informal authority, genders, relatives, facts and fiction. Ultimately, the answer to what really happened to Saville Kent can be solved only by conjecture and assumption. The reader has ample “facts” to choose from in forming their own judgment, and will have a greater appreciation for the history and sociological context of Victorian mysteries as a result.