June 19, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Recently, I've gone off on a non-fiction "research" tangent - anything about true crime or medicine in Victorian England is up for grabs. Given the recent fascination, I was really excited to run across a recently published account of the Road Hill Murder, a murder case that rocked Victorian England and inspired the first true-crime frenzy, which period newspapers called "detective fever". Unfortunately, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale only partially lived up to its blurb (which, incidentally, was very nicely written).

Ultimately, the issue with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is that Summerscale juggles enough material for three different books without proper integration. There is the biographical portion on the great Victorian detective, Jack Whicher, an account of the Road Hill Murder, and an investigation of how both Whicher and the Road Hill case directly affected what was to become known as "detective fiction". All three aspects are interrelated and  highly complimentary. They even play together nicely in the blurb - hence my excitement, but they compete with each other in the book, where Summerscale jaggedly juxtaposes them along with other semi-related facts (Protestant distrust of the Roman Catholic Church and watercolors of the Great Barrier Reef being some of the larger tangents).

The Whicher biography was a compelling portrait of a sharp-minded man ahead of his time, ruined by the largest case of his life. Summerscale handles the Road Hill portions with equal interest, painting the scene with forensic detail and compelling emotion. She also makes some genuinely interesting connections between the Whicher/Road Hill historical material and the literary craze that it spawned. One can definitely see Whicher as the prototype for Inspector Cuff in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. There are even shades of Sherlock Holmes in his single-minded pursuit of forensic proof. Likewise, one can easily see how the Road Hill case spawned hundreds of literary imitations in the form of the "estate mystery," where a murder or crime takes place at a large country manor, with the guilty party being either family or visiting friend. Every single aspect of the book is interesting, but therein lies the problem. They each remain single aspects instead of well-integrated parts of a whole.

Given all of this, I recommend the book but I do so with a warning: The narrative and historical fascination Summerscale delivers are tempered by structural flaws and tangential wandering. I recommend reading the parts that interest and skimming over the rest to avoid what I found to be irritating side-tracks.

June 4, 2008

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I'd been meaning to read The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole for ages. I'd been told many times by many people that any fan of gothic literature sort of has to at some point, and after having read it, I think those many people are right... on condition.

The Castle of Otranto is sort of the grand-daddy of gothic literature and its many permutations -Victorian gothic (Wilkie Collins and Bram Stoker), gothic romance (everyone from Anne Radcliffe to Victoria Holt), gothic mystery (Edgar Allen Poe), even Stephen King's modern psychological horror (The Shining) and Anne Rice's tortured, vampiric anti-heroes  owe something to Horace Walpole's novel of death, sexual obsession, religion and hidden identity, all of which revolves around various claims on the castle in the title.  It was stumbling across all of these instances of influence that I most enjoyed about reading The Castle of Otranto....

And here is where I have to admit that I didn't enjoy much else about it, which actually embarrasses me. The thing is, there was nothing particularly wrong with the book. In fact, it might just be that I wasn't in the mood for melodrama. I suspect if you read The Castle of Otranto with your tongue in your cheek it would prove to be pretty entertaining, especially if you have a passing familiarity with medieval romance, which Walpole both draws from and satirizes with the story and its narrative tone. Altogether well-done and entertaining. I just found it to be a bit tedious. Maybe I wasn't in the mood...

Regardless, I would recommend it. It's fairly short, so it isn't much to slog through if you are, in fact, finding it tedious, and the pay-off is pretty good from a lit. geek point of view. I couldn't help but enjoy reading the locus from which so many other genres and works grew, so even on those merits alone, The Castle of Otranto is worth the read.