Shiny Shelf

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

By Mark Clapham on 05 May 2011

Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ is a brave choice of book to adapt into an ITV drama.

While the subject matter – the investigation of a nationally notorious child murder in the mid 19th century, at the dawn of the age of detection – is dramatic, the way Summerscale’s book deals with it concentrates on the bigger picture, compellingly portraying the explosion of public interest in the case and the nature of Victorian policing. It’s a great read, but hardly Hollywood material.

This adaptation, written by Neil McKay and directed by James Hawes, has a much tighter focus, concentrating on detective Jack Whicher’s investigation of the Road Hill House murder, and the effect that difficulties with the investigation had on Whicher and his career.

Paddy Considine does a great job as Whicher, a man now only knowable via official correspondence, court records and quotes in the press. His personal life is referred to in passing, but Whicher is seen here mostly in the context of the investigation as recorded rather than imagining the rest of his life.

In not tangenting too far into invention, McKay’s script largely follows the recorded facts as presented by Summerscale, resisting heavier fictionalising. A lot of the dialogue has the slightly stilted feel of written, formal statements adapted into spoken dialogue, but Considine and an excellent supporting cast mostly make it work.

In bringing the case to the screen, the main changes are those of context, of taking a series of formal interviews and searches and presenting them in a more visual and emotional way.

At the same time, the frustrations Whicher expressed to his superiors over the progress of the case are externalised. The result is a rather more dynamic detective than the one in the book, whose investigation was characterised by the caution and politeness required at a time when the police ‘intruding’ into a respectable private house was still highly controversial.

Considine’s Whicher is rather more confrontational and active, roaming the house and surrounding village, barging into suspect’s bedrooms and getting in their faces. At a couple of points credulity feels a little stretched by Whicher’s more tactless encounters with the residents of Road Hill House, but Considine is excellent as a man trying to do his job but frustrated by his own inability to find hard evidence to back up his own suspicions.

While a conviction was achieved and the Road Hill House case closed, it wasn’t entirely to Whicher’s satisfaction and left a number of questions unanswered. The adaptation doesn’t shy from this, or try to provide answers of its own, instead maintaining the sense of uncertainty.

This is a highly watchable, sober and well-acted recounting of the case as described in Summerscale’s book, superbly shot by Hawes in a style that maintains momentum without feeling overly flashy or sensationalised. Hopefully it will encourage more people to pick up the book.

‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ is out now on DVD.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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