Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Suspicious

I've been meaning to write about The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for so long, that I've forgotten absolutely everything I was going to say... but I wanted to hear your thoughts, so this will be a very brief thought about the book, and a wider question about the genre.

For those who don't know, The
Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale - which was hugely popular, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, and is still in the bestselling list on Bloomsbury's website - blurs the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction. That is to say, doubtless Summerscale's research is impeccable - but the pace and style of the book borrow much from fiction. It tells the story of an 1860 murder in a country house, 'perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time[...] For the country as a whole, the murder at Road Hill became a kind of myth - a dark fable about the Victorian family and the dangers of detection.'

For it was this murder that kicked off the idea of the detective, which has spawned a whole, beloved genre of fiction. Mr. Whicher was his name, and Summerscale's book is as much about his history, and the genesis of the detective, as it is about the gruesome murder of a young boy. Like the archetypal detective novel, the murder must have committed by someone in the house, one of the supposedly grieving family.

Summerscale's book has the excitement of a detective novel combined with the historical interest of a true, important story - she can use real newspaper articles alongside pacy accounts of the events. It is a brilliant formula, which only occasionally flounders... because it is a true story, there can only be twists as ingenious as actually happened. The ending (for the murderer is unveiled) would doubtless be a dozen times more fiendishly plotted in an author's imagination. But it would be churlish to complain - the idea for the book is very clever; the execution impressive, and Whicher's legacy fascinating.

As far as I know, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is the first book to recreate a true murder in quite this way. And, unusually for such a successful book, I haven't come across any copycat writers trying to reproduce the idea. So I'm asking you - do you know of anything in a similar vein, where fact and fiction blur? I can only think of books like Author, Author by David Lodge, where a true story is openly fictionalised - none where a true story is simply lent the narrative structure of fiction.

And, of course, your thoughts on The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? A book group favourite, I suspect huge swathes of Stuck-in-a-Book readers have read this, and I'm intrigued to know what you thought... Did you find Summerscale's approach worked? And what on earth is she going to write next?

13 comments:

  1. I'm reminded of Arthur & George?

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  2. My first thought is of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which is widely referred to as the first nonfiction novel. And then there's Norman Mailer (The Executioner's Song) and Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff). But all of these books are about contemporary events (contemporary to the authors anyway).

    I think it's more unusual to see nonfiction novels about historical events. The Devil in the White City maybe? It sometimes reads like fiction, but it never quite manages to feel like a novel.

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  3. I have to confess I was disappointed by this book. Well written, yes, but its comparisons with Vic Lit were sometimes way off the mark. In particular, its synopsis of Lady Audley's Secret was almost unrecognisable.

    That said, the sections about the press were fantastic. Mind you, the author used to be Lit Ed of the Telegraph, so I suppose that is to be expected.

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  4. If you're thinking of Author Author, you'd also have to include The Master by Colm Toibin. Then there's the fictionalised life of Emily Dickenson, The Sister, by Paola Kaufmann (very good, I can recommend it). I've also come across two short stories recently - The Revival by Julian Barnes about Turgenev's last fling and The Jester of Astapovo by Rose Tremain about the death of Tolstoy. Oh and there was the recent novel by Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher that dealt in part with the life of a famous American photographer (it was also very good).

    If you're interested in non-fiction with a touch of fictionalisation, I'd warmly recommend Rachel Cohen's A Chance Meeting about friendships between American authors from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, and for undecidable autobiographical fiction, look no further than Colette. Her Pure and Impure about her 'researches' into alternative forms of sexuality in the demi-monde is a curious, bewitching sort of book.

    Sorry - way too much information, but I couldn't resist.

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  5. Yes In Cold Blood would probably be the most obvious one in this vein.

    I am rather squeamish so haven't picked this one up yet but it does sound fascinating and I would like to read it. Same with In Cold Blood. I tend to prefer cosy reads but sometimes a bit of blood and intrigue is just what you need!

    Litlove- thanks for that list - I'm off to find out about the Emily Dickinson one!

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  6. I thought this was an interesting read though it wasn't great.

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  7. In Cold Blood is a intensely powerful and evocative nonfiction novel, which is wonderfully well-written. I urge you to read it if you enjoyed this (which I haven't read).

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  8. I found this book thoroughly riveting! Having recently returned from a trip to London when I read it, I got chills reading about the mosaic on the floor of the crypt in St Paul's Cathedral.

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  9. Expect some of you will be reading The Tortoise and The Hare for Cornflower's bookgroup, so thought I'd throw in Dr Gully - a loosely fictionalised account of a Victorian poisoning, also by Elizabeth Jenkins. I don't think it works well as a novel - there's no tension - but it's very good on social detail, as was Mr Whicher.

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  10. I was disappointed -- I'd really looked forward to it but it seemed to me to fall between two stools (non-fic trying to be fic I suppose) and I was just basically not impressed. In Cold Blood is great,though.

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  11. I like Magsmcc thought of Arthur and George, but thats in many ways fiction, as is the Gyles Brandreth 'Oscar Wilde detective series'. Hmmm will puzzle over this.

    I loved this book thought it was brilliant. It will be featuring on my blog again soon as it was one of the crimes that inspired sensation fiction.

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  12. Thanks for all these suggestions. Not sure I'm brave enough for In Cold Blood... we'll see!

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  13. I just started reading this yesterday and I am hooked - and I know this sounds really stupid but I did not know that this was not a historic novel but actually non-fiction till I was 50 pages in it.
    It reminded me hugely of Arthur & George by Julian Barnes ( which is fiction, I know) - the whole unravelling of the story is quite similar.
    What I am really enjoying is not only its a truly puzzling murder mystery ( and makes you wonder how crimes were solved before all of the forensics and DNA testing came into picture) but it also sort of ties in the growth of "detective" literature!

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