Kate Summerscale’s 2008 book “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House” was one of that year’s literary phenomena, not to mention one of the best books too (not always the same thing.)
The subject was the story of a particularly gruesome real-life Victorian murder of a three-year-old boy taken from his bed inside the family home, his throat cut and his body stuffed into the cesspit underneath an outside lavatory. Even 150 years later this crime is still as viscerally shocking and outrageous to hear about as it was in 1860: the case’s high profile at the time meant that the chief investigating officer from London, Inspector Jack Whicher, became a celebrity of sorts – he was the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in “Bleak House” and Sergeant Cuff in “The Moonstone”, and at least a couple of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories seem to riff off some of the themes of the case, while the overall “country house murder” has become a murder mystery cliché over the years.
The book was such a triumph in reviving the original case story and evoking the time in which it was set, that it was with some degree of trepidation that I saw a two hour adaptation (or 100 minutes sans advertisements) was airing over Easter. Would they cock it up and blight the original in the process?
Thankfully the answer is a resounding no, and much of the praise for that has to go to Paddy Considine playing the eponymous Whicher. The television version follows him throughout and there’s little we see that’s not through his eyes, so it’s vital that he’s an interesting, watchable and accessible character throughout, and Considine pulls it off magnificently and is both compelling and sympathetic, even when things unravel for him. Kudos also to Peter Capaldi, effortlessly dropping off the persona of Malcolm Tucker to play the shocked, grieving father of the murder victim, who gradually realises that an even worse nightmare lies behind it all for him and he has to make a dreadful choice between helping the police to capture the killer, and protecting his family. And praise also to the ever-reliable Tom Georgeson playing the local police superintendent out of his depth in such a case but also deeply resenting the intrusion of Scotland Yard, and to the director James Hawes for making it all look very real while simultaneously unobtrusively stylish.
It’s not perfect, however. Considering the hefty book that it was adapted from, the 100 minutes did feel strangely stretched out – the slower pace certainly better than the alternative of having everyone running around like an episode of “Hawaii Five-O”, of course. But that’s because all the detail about the life and times of people in the English rural countryside in the mid-nineteenth century necessarily fails to make the transition from printed page to screen, and so this never really feels particularly “period” – almost as though the makers are consciously preferring to play up how “modern” this case was and how things haven’t really changed, for all that some people yearn for the good old days of Victorian values: which, it turns out, were just as unsavoury as our own after all. The programme also glosses over the passing of five years before the resolution, making it feel like the interval has just been enough time for Mr Whicher to head home for a cup of tea.
And if you’re looking for a complex murder mystery, then this isn’t the one for you. After a brief red herring suspect (and you know the governess isn’t guilty, because it’s the inept and pompous local police superintendent pointing the finger) there’s really only one or two people it could really be. One of them eventually confesses, while it’s the other who is the true subject of Mr Whicher’s unproven “suspicions”. Like many a true notorious tale, however, the real truth behind it is long since lost to history and so can never be any more than suspicions after all this time.
Perhaps the one big surprise is to learn the fate of the convicted murderer: the death sentence was commuted to life which eventually meant 20 years (see, things really haven’t changed!) after which they moved to Australia … to live for over 50 years until their death in 1944, which seems suddenly shockingly close to our modern time after all.