Sunday, August 28, 2016

Most Foul and Horrible

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008) by Kate Summerscale: The 1860 murder of three-and-a-half-year-old Saville Kent in the County of Wiltshire in Southwest England became the crime story of the year. It would echo in fiction and fact for decades afterwards in everything from pulpy mysteries to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." Saville Kent's murder had it all -- a locked-room mystery, family secrets and grievances, possible sexual improprieties, class resentments, and the dead and befouled body of a child stuffed mercilessly into the holding tank of an outdoor water closet.

Kate Summerscale does a nice job of structuring her non-fiction book as if it were one of the British mysteries that the events actually helped shape. The murder brought one of Scotland Yard's first eight detectives, Jack Whicher, to Wiltshire to investigate the murder. Unfortunately for Whicher, not only had two weeks passed since the murder by the time he arrived, but a startlingly inept local constabulary had allowed key pieces of evidence to disappear.

The result would be a failure of investigation and prosecution that ultimately caused Whicher to retire and a murderer to walk free. But that's only the beginning of the story. In 1865, a new twist in the case would emerge to enthrall and disgust Great Britain again. And things didn't end there. By the conclusion of her book, Summerscale has unearthed more evidence to shed further light on the awful murder.

Summerscale's prose is mostly workmanlike as she keeps the focus on the facts of the case and the various historical and literary events swirling around it. At points, she actually works a bit too hard to keep from being academic: the text buries illuminating observations about the classic English mystery from Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin in the end-notes. 

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher argues convincingly for the murder and its aftermath's effect on English attitudes towards detectives, and for the shaping of the evolving English mystery novel itself. The 19th-century English legal system also offers some strange moments. And as Summerscale follows various people well into the 20th century, a mystery that seems to have been solved instead offers up more mysteries.

At the centre of the narrative is Detective Whicher, a brilliant man who is one of England's pioneers of investigation and forensics. Around him are arrayed gutter journalists and well-meaning constables, devastated family members and family members with something to hide, a governess whose odd behaviour on the morning after the murder almost ruins her life, a washerwoman who inexplicably hides evidence from the police, a publicity-seeking vicar, a rebellious teenager, and Charles Dickens. It's a rich story, convincingly told. Highly recommended.

Nevermore (1996) by William Hjortsberg: The 1990's paperback version of Nevermore was clearly designed to resemble the paperback of The Alienist, Caleb Carr's riveting 1990's murder mystery set in New York that combined real people (most notably Teddy Roosevelt and William James) with fictional characters in pursuit of a serial killer. The interior front cover/two-page illustration actually seems to have come from the same photograph as the cover of The Alienist. Hmm.

The resemblance mostly ends there: Hjortsberg does combine fact and fiction, but the mystery and the serial killer are only a part of what the novel explores. As with Hjortsberg's more famous Falling Angel (made into the controversial 1987 movie Angel Heart starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro), Nevermore is invested in mysteries and morality and the oddities of human nature, not in the prime importance of the aims and methods of detection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle arrives in 1923 New York to begin his United States lecture tour on the Spirit World and his many attempts to communicate with the dead. Meanwhile, with vaudeville dying, Harry Houdini searches for a new money-making model for his magic shows while also waging a very public war against the mediums and spiritualists whom he views as being dangerous frauds. Despite their radical disagreement on spiritualism, however, Houdini and Doyle were friends. 

And a mysterious string of murders, each based on a different work by Edgar Allan Poe, soon seems to be working its way towards either Houdini or Doyle as the final victim.

Hjortsberg does a marvelous job of combining fact and fiction. He deploys a lengthy and detailed set of historical events and personages while keeping the novel light on its feet and often movingly dark and poetic. But Nevermore is also very funny at points. Nevermore's depiction of Houdini and Doyle makes them lively, fascinating individuals. And the sexy spirit medium who has dubbed herself Isis -- what's her game?

Nevermore is more of a novel with a mystery than a mystery novel. Still, it's satisfying in its fictional and factual elements. And you'll find out how a couple of Houdini's famous tricks were accomplished (though not all of the ones depicted in the novel). Hjortsberg even throws in a climax that's wittily movie-like. All this and the morose ghost of Edgar Allan Poe, visible only to Doyle. Highly recommended.

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