Monday, February 02, 2009

The more things change, the more they remain the same

Vicki here, full of historical insights today.

I have been reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It’s a true story about a sensational murder in the town of Road, in England in 1860. Mr. Whicher is Jack Whicher, one of the very first detectives on the London Police. One night, in July of 1860, a three year old boy was removed from his bed, taken outside, had his throat cut, and stuffed into an outdoor privy (aka outhouse). From the start there was never much doubt that the crime was committed by someone inside the house, either family or servants. The case was a sensation, particularly because of the intervention of the police detective. An Englishman’s home, no matter how humble, was his castle and a lot of people, including the press, had a problem with the police breaking into a family’s privacy.

Initially, the local police wouldn’t even consider the family as suspects, preferring to concentrate on the servants, despite all evidence to the contrary. Mr. Whicher, however, changed that.

One thing really struck me in the book. We think we live in such crime-ridden times, but in the book much ink is given to details of the man of the house closing up before going to bed the night before the murder as he locks and bolts doors and windows. And then, everyone LOCKS THEMSELVES IN THEIR BEDROOM. What the heck?

This is a country home, outside a small village in England in 1860. And people had to lock themselves in?

Now that I think about it – parts of my house are well over 100 years old, and the bedroom door has a key hole. The key has long since disappeared. I don’t think they even make houses anymore with interior doors (other than the bathroom) that lock.
That struck me as weird.

The case was very influential in a way that effects us as mystery readers and writers. Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone was influenced by the Road House case, and Collins’ detective, Sergeant Cuff, is considered to be a fictional version of Inspector Whicher. The Moonstone is, arguably, the prototype for all detective fiction being written today. Once I finished Suspicions, I dove into The Moonstone.

What a great book. And some things, despite locked bedroom doors, never do change. Here’s a quote. She ‘had been a thief, and not being of the sort that get up Companies in the City and rob from thousands, instead of only robbing from one, the law laid hold of her and the prison... followed.’ Think about that for a moment, and then read Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times.

'“Say I’m a banker and I created $30 million. I should get a part of that,” one banker told The New York Times. And if you’re a banker and you destroyed $30 billion? Uncle Sam to the rescue!'


Susan D said...

Ah, all those lockable bedrooms: scene of the crime in a thousand vintage Brit mysteries, with the victim and the key on one side of the door and the usual suspects on the other.

But somehow, there's always an answer.

(Me too, Vicki. My 1933 house has lovely old locks, and not a key to be found.)

Vicki Delany said...

Which gives me an idea - there are plenty of old houses in Trafalgar

Susan D said...

An idea...? Oooo.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Our house, circa 1960, has lockable interior doors. I've only noticed because one teenage son uses his, which makes me suspicious. Husband and I lurk outside, sniffing for herbal emanations. Your idea doesn't have to take place in a very old home!

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