Monday, 7 April 2008

The 1860 Road Hill Murder...

The Saturday Guardian "Review" section contained a fascinating summary of "The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; or, the Murder at Road Hill House" (2008, Bloomsbury) by its author Kate Summerscale. In it, she argues that the gruesome events at a country house in Road Hill in Wiltshire (and the police response to them) formed the template for English detective novels, such as in Wilkie Collins' well-known novel "The Moonstone" (1868).

The London detective sent to Road Hill, Inspector Jonathan Whicher, quickly "developed an ingenious solution to the mystery": however, when his theory became publicly known, he was "reviled in the press and the House of Commons", causing him to have a nervous breakdown and to retire from the force. Yet when, five years later, the murderer confessed, the grisly details were essentially as the detective had thought. All too late for poor Whicher, though.

What particularly caught my (Voynichological) eye in Summerscale's article was the Road Hill case's echo in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's (1862) novel "Lady Audley's Secret". Braddon's "tormented amateur detective Robert Audley" fearfully wonders who is the real madman - the woman he suspects of murder, or Audley himself caught in some kind of "obsessive delusion":-
"What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link is constructed out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crotchets - the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the misery lies."

All of which I think near-perfectly expresses the self-reflective terror that is (or at least should be) ever-present in the Voynichologist: reconstructive imagination perched on a precipice.

Before "The Moonstone", the American history of the detective story goes back to Edgar Allan Poe's (1841) "The Murders in the rue Morgue", a locked room mystery with a surprising twist: but there is something about the English country house - its self-enclosed world of servants, class, envy, superficiality, insularity, etc - that lends itself to novel-length fiction.

Yet this is a false kind of knowledge, as the real Road Hill case demonstrates (Kate Summerscale reveals that Whicher believed two people were complicit in the murder, though only one confessed). In the context of constructing a 250-page book with neat closure, it is attractive: but the real world rarely fits into neatly filed boxes, carefully abstracted case-studies like the ones Harvard Business School professors famously used to construct in the 1960s and 1970s.

To me, this whole Victorian quest for smoking guns - for Holmesian certainty - is a kind of adolescent fantasy thinking, a pipedream of pure causality. In the real world, all we can actually do is sign up for the chase and give it our best shot: perhaps we will reach a satisfactory resolution in our attempts, perhaps we will not. But we must continue to try, all the same.

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