In the nursery, Whicher was shown how the blanket had been drawn between Saville’s bedclothes on the night of his death, and the sheet and quilt ‘folded neatly back’ to the foot of the cot – which, he said, ‘it can hardly be supposed a man could have done.’
Yup, this for real a quarter century before Sherlock Holmes made his first bow. Whicher was a friend of Charles Dickens – the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House draws on him – and one of the first generation of elite police detectives in London.
In unspectacular yet engaging prose, Kate Summerscale‘s The suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury, 2008) catches a zeitgeist moment when things changed, when a few more pieces of the modernity jigsaw can be seen to have dropped into place. The sub-title of the US edition suggests a broader canvas: A shocking murder and the undoing of a great Victorian detective. From the details of the distressing case of the killing of a three-year old child in Wiltshire in 1860 we get to witness the establishment of the detective as a significant role in civil society, the growth of a sensationalist press and the evolution of crime fiction.
Nevermind the progress of the actual case, and its probable solution, which is interesting and original enough in itself, though I will say nothing more specific of it here, we also get to see various aspects of the changing Victorian class structure as they are played out, and the not so curious parallels in the growth of the modern methods of detection – the first record of the word ‘clueless’ is as late as 1862 – and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is also a background presence generally; “Objects were incorruptible in their silence. They were mute witnesses to history, fragments – like Darwin’s fossils – that could freeze the past.” Detective recruits were inevitably working class men of ambition, and as such were regarded as establishment sell-outs by their peers but greatly resented as rude, ‘low and mean’ intruders by a middle class struggling to hold on the privacy implied by the notion of the Englishman’s home being his castle.
In the matter of the evolution of the crime fiction genre – and you will recall that Dickens was heading that way with his unfinished The mystery of Edwin Drood – the Road Hill House murder was influential from the start, setting the template for so much of what was to come. Wilkie Collins’s The moonstone,
… a founding fable of detective fiction, adopted many of the characteristics of the real investigation at Road: the country house crime in which the criminal must be one of the inmates of the house; the secret lives behind a veneer of propriety; the bumbling, pompous local policeman; the behaviour that seems to point to one thing yet turns out to point to another; the way that the innocent and the guilty alike act suspiciously, because all have something to hide; the scattering of ‘real clues and pseudo clues’ …
… on the detectives. Sensation fiction, she said, was ‘a literary institutionalisation of the habits of mind of the new police force.’ The ‘literary Detective’ she wrote in 1862, ‘is not a collaborator whom we welcome with any pleasure into the republic of letters. His appearance is neither favourable to taste or morals.’ A year later she complained of ‘detectivism’ …
Detectivism! Now there’s a word for us to finish on Kate Summerscale‘s splendid exploration. Recommended, and another justification for Book Groups, because I wouldn’t have occurred to me to read it otherwise.
There are at least three graphic murders in L.S.Hilton‘s Maestra (Zaffre, 2016), and there’s no mystery as to the killer, though don’t ask me to tell you what’s going down because I’d have to do a re-read to be sure and life’s too short and the to-be-read pile is too tall for that. Not that it’s not an exhilarating ride for a lot of the time.
Why did I read Maestra? It got a real going over in Private Eye but part of their reviewer’s beef was the good reviews it had got in some places; a blogger I subscribe to said it had some real merits, and it was cheap – a hardback for a fiver on Amazon, where the reviews are polarised. Mention is made of 50 shades but that’s bollocks – (not that I’ve read 50 shades) L.S.Hilton can write. I didn’t feel unclean so much at the detailed, sometimes orgiastic, sex (though I could have done without so much of it, and I’d need diagrams to understand what they were doing a lot of the time) as at all the designer label specifics. And when I say all I mean a lot; is it fair to blame James Bond for starting that fictional trend for brand specifics?
It’s a question just how much these two aspects of the novel are important in establishing the character of our anti-heroine, for this is indeed an homage to Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr, Ripley. Judith Rashleigh (bloody hell – I’ve only just realised she shares a name with her in the painting) has had a difficult start in life, but she is given a purpose by Art. She gets a junior job in one of the major auction houses where she discovers a). a low glass ceiling – breeding, who she knows – that excludes her advance, and b). very little love of art as art, as opposed to big profits, scams and/or money laundering. Indeed, the only person there who shares her appreciation for the paintings is the caretaker in the basement.
Circumstances lead to her mixing with the super-rich on a modern Grand Tour of Europe, indulgence, intrigue and skullduggery. Contempt for the super-rich elites who don’t know or take for granted the proper aesthetic value of their goodies drives the righteousness of her acts. Which then inevitably take on a logic of risk and necessity of their own, leading to more of the same. It’s a compelling first person narrative portrait (though one could argue the realism of the events) of someone who knows what they want and feels it is deserved. Though there is something, too, which is endearing about her social observations. And there are a couple of massive twists in the narrative that make it an intriguing read, one, though I had huge doubts during the opening chapters, I don’t regret giving time to. Last words: “To be continued”. Here are a few little squibs, some delightful scorn, that mean I’m tempted:
about a gold-digger: the diamond on her ring finger as spectacularly disproportionate as her tit job
the Med of the super-yacht anchorages: And even the sleepiest village square would contain a boutique or two where the women of the floating tribe of Eurowealth could pop …
- about an ageing Russian oligarch: his face was timelessly malicious
on billionaire interior decoration stylee: All I could think of when we got to the apartment was that God never resists a chance to show His contempt for money.
on a murderee: … it occurred to me that one feels less guilty about murdering a man who reads Jeffrey Archer for pleasure.
on rich men again: If there was one thing I wanted never to see again if this little European tour came off it was another fucking tasselled loafer.
- at the Venice Biennale: a squawking gaggle of dealers and art-whores…
Scribal, Bards, Yorkiefest
Magnificent in significant parts, May’s Scribal Gathering was a bit of a strange one. Featured acts were great. Stony Bard Vanessa Horton was in great poetic form and anxious to remind us in passing, “I do do serious stuff too.” Rutland Troubadour Paul McClure started off with a Prince tribute, harmonica harness in place and in use – I wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t told us – and
delivered a fine set of Americana flavoured songs of his own making (including one that segued nicely into and out of Woody Guthrie’s This land is your land) to great applause and had us warming the cockles singing along with “I’m gonna find myself a little ray of sunshine.” Inevitably we got Phil Chippendale’s localised This land – always a pleasure to singalong – later.
What else? The bravery of stand-up comics who carry on regardless when no laughs come; the generosity of an audience that holds on for at least the sign off joke … that is not delivered. A sour misanthropic sub-Chandler spoken word piece triggered by its author’s feeling of injustice at not getting enough time previously. Which was one of the reasons Stephen Hobbs – introduced as Stony Stratford’s Alan Bennett – had to cut short his addendum to a really rather good piece he’d had to cut short at the well received Shakespeare open mic event at York House a couple of weeks earlier. Hey ho, for the rain it raineth everyday.
But the evening concluded gloriously with the powerful voices of Andy Powell and Tim Hague doing their rousing acapella maritime thing: the moving Cornish boys, The Dogger Bank and another one I can’t remember. And so out into the night to be confronted again by the damage to Stony Stratford High Street resulting from the big fire on the first day of May – photo at the bottom of this piece.
Yesterday the fourth annual YorkieFest down the road at York House. Click on the programme and then click again to read it. Another great day’s music. Invidious to single anyone out, but what a talented bunch of singer songwriters! David Cattermole called back for an encore, gave us the mesmeric Can’t find my way home we’d been hoping for. Great to hear some Bollywood played live – good vibes from Navaras; even got us singing along. Roddy quality as ever, and The Fabulators really rocked the joint. It was all good.
The good, the bad and the ugly