Friday 23 October 2009

Modern man made flesh

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Or The Murder at Road Hill House, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)

June, 1842. A small detective division is created in the London Met, by special permission of the Home Office. Camberwell’s Jack Whicher is one of a small group of new detectives, on a salary of £73 a year, who is allowed to shed the traditional bobby’s blue and wear plain clothes on duty. The Times despairs at this disaster, writing in 1845 that there will ‘always be, something repugnant in the bare idea of espionage’ (p51).  But by the 1850s it’s emerging author Charles Dickens who captures the growing fascination with these quick-witted stewards of the street. Whicher’s boss Charlie Field inspires Bleak House’s Inspector Bucket, whilst the Road Hill case of this book goes on to be fictionalised by author Wilkie Collins. The Victorian detective is born, as the Introduction puts it, both ‘a demon and a demi-god’.

Kate Summerscale’s engaging recent book (winner of the BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction; shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger), although billed as a ‘factual’ account, tells the story of the infamous Murder at Road Hill House. In 1860 baby Samuel Kent was found stuffed down the servants’ privy of a middle class Wiltshire home, his little body covered in blood and his tiny head swinging off. He’d been murdered - so murmured the local gossips - by a member of the upstanding Kent household. This is the first time a detective legitimately enters an Englishman’s home and grossly interferes in its family’s life, whilst the national press publishes all details to a captivated audience. Set amidst the giddy dynamics of an industrial, rapidly urbanising England, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher brings together themes of privacy, modernity, morality - and their discontents - to investigate the birth of detective surveillance. At bottom, this is a clever conceit on the role of author as detective which neatly juxtaposes crime fiction with the reality of crime detection.

Summerscale turns the crime genre on its head from the start by informing us the murder has already been solved. The murderer confessed, whilst the characters carefully listed on this book’s opening pages like a whodunnit play are all happily now dead. Mr Whicher’s suspicions though, whilst only truly confirmed with the passage of time, may perhaps (it’s barely hinted) have something left to them yet. This is an intelligent approach which gently nudges the reader to reflect on the real nature of detection throughout, and stays frustratingly, all the more because you know it’s on purpose, two steps ahead. Cf. ‘clue’ from the Old English ‘clew’ for a ball of string, the likes of which Ariadne gave to Theseus to lead him back through the twists and turns safely out of the Minotaur’s maze. Though Summerscale’s self-conscious style can be mildly excruciating, it’s this sort of historical detail (maps! train times! strange female underthingames!) carelessly tossed into intimately drawn scenes from Victorian life - coupled with the close relationship between this case and its fictionalisation - that gives you second order goose pimples in the retelling.

Predictably, much is made of the nineteenth century detective as a motif of modernity, a product of science and political progress with a daring dark side. He’s established as ‘a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest’, but this was no straightforward or simple substitution. At first, the detective was still shackled to the old ideas: detectives were masters of obfuscation and disguise; they could see things hidden to mere mortals with an almost supernatural sixth sense; often practised the now-debunked science of physiognomy, and relied a great deal on good luck to get by. Many used dastardly means and passed off their guesswork as disinterested deduction; the term ‘hunch’ was coined to describe the phenomenon of feeling intuitively towards the answer.

Eventually though, the ideal detective came to reflect the worldview of the fully-fledged bourgeoisie: the detective was thoroughly intelligent and self-reliant and enjoyed passive reflection; he believed in social order and equality before the law, while his own subjective individualism was at the centre of his worldview. Extolling these virtues, he was also allowed a vice or two. This is the pipe-smoking Sherlock Holmes created by Conan Doyle around 1887, though as Summerscale notes Holmes is a gentleman, unlike the upwardly mobile heroes of Dickens’ novels and the first real life detectives.

But wherever they came from, detectives shared with priests the special status of being both inside and outside of society at the same time. Priests acted as mediators between divine and earthly powers, offering support and paternal admonishment whilst acting as role models and moral advisors - they were respected wherever they went. Detectives too navigated between the new ruling and ruled classes yet belonged themselves to neither, they enforced the law of the land, dished out punishments and unburdened people by taking ‘confessions’, ultimately taking responsibility for drawing a boundary between what was socially acceptable and what wasn’t. The detective was like the crime novelist in telling ‘stories that could organise chaos’: he imposed his own order on the world. He was like the priest in being able to ‘absolve us of uncertainty, absolve us of guilt and remove us from the presence of death’ (p304): he alone could offer stability and comfortingly tell us that all would be well. 

Of course purging society of its chaotic elements was a grisly affair, which could verge on the obsessive, compulsive and downright macabre. Summerscale well documents the way the nation ‘turned detective’ in the Road Hill case. Intimate details of the Kent family’s life and intrigues of its past were laid bare to the insatiable public glare, especially through the increasingly influential national press. Whicher was sent letter upon letter outlining possible methods of the crime. The desire to find and punish a perpetrator is described as a gutturally collective experience, a way of securing social boundaries by removing a perceived internal threat; the related desire to join all the dots as if sketching a satisfying answer to some perplexing problem can come across as equally freakish in its detachment.

Yet this idea of the two-sided Victorians with their two-sided society, outwardly ordered yet harbouring a hideous inner madness, a reserved elite playing off the rasping masses, is perhaps a little old hat. More interesting is the variegated, capricious, nearly childish nature of the public, its outspoken loons and heady sense of vying interests, the incorrigible role of gossip in communicating known but unaccepted truths. Making an obvious comparison with today’s haphazard blogosphere, tepid news headlines and roster of watery celeb stories, what seems missing now is any sense of a shared container in which conflicting opinions can develop into broader positions, any opportunity for winning round real supporters, any reaction against the conservative old authorities by the progressive newer ones. Today, it’s not so much that idle gossip or baseless speculation corrupts, but that in the absence of anything to be corrupted, it simply gnaws away itself into nothing.

In fact there’s little to suggest any section of Victorian society was scared of using or making authority in the same way that politicians, judges or journalists seem today. Against to the tedious illiberalism that colours contemporary debate, the Victorian public looks infinitely sympathetic and persuadable, if not a little vicious or easily bored. Summerscale muses that Whicher failed to court even working class public sympathy in accusing a middle class girl of murder; neither could the jury stomach condemning her to death even after her own confession, defaulting instead to the more traditional Christian nunnery. But perhaps there’s odd hope in Whicher’s failure, and a lesson in always being able to push further: the underlying thrust of this book is that crime fiction can often be truer than its humdrum reality.

Yet in both, the detective is an individual daring to order the world in the way he or she sees fit. Contemporary author Iain Banks pens such a rogue in Complicity, one of his many books set in post-Thatcherite Scotland, though his is outside of the law and rather than sending criminals to prison conducts vigilante killings on the guilty. V for Vendetta is a vaguely similar film where the purposefully faceless V is more explicit in invoking the authority of a yet to be constituted people to legitimise his anti-governmental acts. The detective figure in both cases fights the forces of social chaos in the name of a forgotten social good; in today’s climate he’s further orientated against the state and functions rather as a corrective to the demise of the old legal and moral authorities - along with the class politics which made them.

But the nineteenth century didn’t only produce the detective hero: the penny dreadful was first circulated following the UK’s first Education Act and subsequent swelling in numbers of literate youth. As respectable early crime novels were serialised in the national press and enjoyed a healthy week-to-week relationship with their readers, these gruesome chapter-by-chapter cheaper alternatives told terrifying tales that gave us at best dashing highwayman Dick Turpin. Magistrates back then had penny dreadfuls to blame for youth crime rather than rap and Youtube, but unlike today, youths had GK Chesterton on their side. Chesterton admonished the moral hypocrisy of those critical of penny dreadfuls by pointing out the depravity inherent in more respectable literature; he stressed the very human need to tell stories whilst noting the often traditional romantic nature of these ones, which importantly rarely had any full bodied characters of any sort.

These stories could also double as a warning of the ills awaiting those who dared challenge the dominant order, whilst their tone was mainly Christian, promoting piety and threatening eternal damnation for those who dared complain. The Victorian detective could similarly be understood as a coercive force: he protected private property and policed petty theft amongst the poor. He spied on the politically problematic. He inevitably invaded the privacy of even the respectable folk. In one way another, the popularisation of crime fiction was a general consequence of an emerging capitalist class beginning to consolidate its authority over the toiling masses.

Yet the resulting tension between public and private - well known from the risqué Victorian BBC docudrama, where it tends primarily to lead to good soft pornography - is sometimes assumed at the cost of being explained. It seems only its transgression by Mr Whicher and his men that gave the private real meaning as a place apart from the state; whereas what was shocking to most was the sense of interference in family life. Thinking on the present, the absence of the family as a social institution in any significant sense makes it difficult to see what constitutes an infringement of privacy in the same way. Defences of privacy on a more individual basis fall short of capturing the importance of the private sphere as a place for interaction and making relationships outside of the state. Not only is state intervention both welcomed and at an all time high, but the extent of CCTV, blanket smoking bans, alcohol control zones, ‘terrorist’ monitoring techniques, over-zealous childcare regulation and so on makes it unclear exactly what is being intervened on in the first place.

In fact, what gradually emerges from this book is the idea of ambivalence, or ambiguity. Summerscale frequently mentions that individuals keep and find secrets. Whicher has one - he probably joined the police force to escape a young woman he’d made pregnant; Mr Kent has one - his finances are askew, whilst his children’s governess was in before his wife was out; son William has one - taking the recipe for artificial pearl creation he develops in Australia to his grave. What matters about this new crime detective is he can uncover such secrets; and Summerscale as an author-detective aims to recast the past through a similar process.

Secrets are something the characters both make for themselves and construct themselves around, they form the fulcrum for their engagement with the world, allowing them to have both private and public parts. The content of these secrets frequently goes unrecorded and untold, like the blank piece of paper William leaves locked in a vault. Never fully expressed or maybe in some way inexpressible, they’re permanently unresolved, ambivalent, showing the tantalising possibility of finding something new about the past coupled with the impossibility of ever being certain. It’s these pregnant unknowns that allow the detective to make up, and remake, their chaos-organising stories at will, giving a space for human choice to determine whether things go one way or another, but also a space to hide from making one. Ultimately, the existence of secrets, the need to have them, signals a more pervasive and uneasy sort of limitation to the world these characters inhabit – along with the modern detective’s ability to make meaning from it.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher ends with the bombshell that the convicted Constance Kent confessed just before her brother William, then still under suspicion for murder, was due to inherit £1,000. ‘Her act of atonement liberated William, made his future possible’ (p302); this impenetrable brother-sister pairing echoed in the likes of Henry James’ eerie Turn of the Screw. Whicher had apparently suspected the two conducted the murder all along. But as to Summerscale’s suggestion that the purest kind of detective story is like Dickens’ last The Murder of Edwin Drood, which remains to this day elusively unfinished, perhaps the purest detective story is ultimately no detective story at all - and no need for one, either.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.

Resources

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.