Thursday, August 28, 2008

Murder Most Foul

Kate Summerscale's "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" beckoned from the top shelf in the "History: English" section at the bookstore last week and I climbed up on a stool, stretched and grabbed it (New York: Walker & Company, 2008; list price $24.95).

While reading it straight through in short takes over the weekend while doing other things I started to worry about why we (and me in particular) are such avid consumers of murder mysteries.

I don't read them as much as I did years ago (my last marathon maybe four years ago involved paperback editions of all the Tony Hillerman Navajoland series). But if you look on shelves and behind doors around here you'll find DVDs of all the "Midsomer Murders" series released so far, all of the Miss Marple series starring Joan Hickson (the only Miss Marple so far as I'm concerned), all of the "Inspector Linley" series, three seasons of an unlikely series about gardening detectives called "Rosemary&Thyme" and more.

I do draw the line at most of the "mysteries" available on U.S. TV days in large part because there are many things I don't want to see and live broadcasts of autopsies, even though simulated, are among them. But offer me a BBC series or a paperback country-house or desert-southwest riddle involving death and destruction and I'll go for it nearly every time.

I know pacifists, even vegetarians, who relax with these blood-curdling works of fiction; preachers in conservative denominations who wrap their minds around a good murder mystery when the Sunday sermon stalls on the keyboard.

But after all that buildup I have to tell you that I decided I didn't want to worry about this any more; all I really wanted to know was how the story ended; and so I went back to reading. You can fuss about the larger philosophical and social issues if you want to but I'm not going to do it.

"Suspicions" is Summerscale's account of a real country house murder that transfixed England in the mid-19th century and set the stage in many ways for the mysteries we're reading today --- and for how we think about detecting and detectives.

It opens on 30 June 1860 when the body of Francis Saville Kent, just short of 4 years old, was found wrapped in a bloody blanket in the servants' privy of Road Hill House near Trowbridge. He had been stabbed, his throat cut and he may have been suffocated, too.

The only possible suspects were members of a large immediate family plus servants who had been locked securely inside Road Hill House the preceding night.

Enter Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, among the first of the detective breed.

It's a fascinating book that explores, in addition to the murder mystery, how the nation reacted to it, how it was reported upon, how the world of fiction writing was changed and many other threads. The narrative bogs down once or twice under weightier topics, but that's not a serious flaw --- it's a simple matter just to skip over the philosophisizing and get back to the story.

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