1860. A young child goes missing, and is found, dead, in an outside privy. His throat's been cut and it looks like he may have been strangled as well. But there's no evidence of anyone having broken into the house where he lives, and so suspicion falls on the family and servants who live there. When local police fail to make any progress, Jack Whicher, a London detective, is called in to help solve the case.
I wasn't sure where this book was going at first: it reads more like a historical account of events than a novel, and sort of expected that perhaps there would be some post-modern twist that broke the tone. Maybe I was a bit influenced by having just read The Eyre Affair, which has sections set in "the past" interspersed with the present. Also, I didn't know whether the crime being described was a real one, or something that Summerscale had invented.
Well it turns out that it was a real crime, and the book stays in "historical mode" all the way through. I waited until I finished it until I read up about it in Wikipedia though.
But at any rate, it really worked, and was really interesting: not just because of the crime (which was in itself a bit of a puzzler), but the way that the context was explained: this was the era when "detective fiction" was starting to come into vogue, and public reaction to the events of the murder was fanned by an interest in the subject. Summerscale shows how novels that were being published at the time (such as The Woman in White, chapters of which were being published while the case was active) reflected themes of the investigation.
The profession of "detective" was a fairly new one, and various of the terms which are now associated with the genre came into currency around this time. For example, clue, which derives from the word for a ball of thread (as used by Theseus to find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth), denouement which comes from "unknotting", and sleuth, from "track", as in "sleuth-hound". Quite a few "oh, I never realised that" moments.
The other thing that was interesting was how the story of the characters' lives was recounted - while the murderer was brought to trial in 1865, the book follows up with what happened to everyone involved until the middle of the twentieth century. And this made it feel very real (well, I suppose that's because it was, although I wasn't sure about that until I finished the book and checked Wikipedia). So we find that Whicher was involved with the case of the Titchborne claimant (which I'd heard of), and that the murdered boy's half-brother was a famous biologist who wrote the definitive work on Australian coral. It makes you realise that everyone has their own story to tell.
The crime was "solved" when the murderer confessed, but questions remained about certain inconsistencies between the confession and some of the known facts, and Summerscale herself puts forward an explanation of what she thinks happened, which sounds pretty plausible.
I really enjoyed the book.
Completed : 21-Sep-2011 (audiobook)