I first came across Kate Summerscale when I heard a programme about her book., ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ and then bought it. It was a true story which she retold having undertaken a huge amount of research; in fact the detail in her book was so intense it almost overwhelmed the narrative. A young child had been found murdered in 1860, murdered in his own home. The investigation undertaken by the police officer, Mr Whicher, was in many ways a very modern way of examining a crime, taking account of what forensic details he could observe, and interviewing witnesses in an open-minded way. I found the book interesting, but there was so much detail it became a little wearying, as if every possible thing Summerscale had discovered had to be included. I felt that the style of writing wasn’t varied enough, and if she had employed a more creative and imaginative style it might have been more engaging. I wasn’t suggesting it should have been fictionalised, that would be for a very different writer.
It was rather an endurance test to read Mr Whicher, but after a couple of years I read another book by her, The Wicked Boy. It was another true crime, exhaustively investigated and written with immense detail and supported evidence. This, to me was written with a lighter touch, but in some ways it was still ponderous. I have just finished reading a third book by Summerscale – so you can tell that despite my criticism, I did get something from them, but I think I’ll take a rest before I embark on another, I feel rather overwhelmed!
The book I have just finished was a more modern history by Summerscale, about a woman beset by poltergeists… or was she? Considering it was based on facts, I have to say that as in my opinion there are no such things as poltergeists, so I set off reading ‘The Haunting of Alma Fielding’ I knew that Mrs Fielding was a fraud, and her supposed torment by a malign spirit was just a pretence. This didn’t put me off reading it, I thought it would be interesting to see how she was unmasked and what the background story was.. Once again there had been an enormous amount of research by Summerscale, mostly delving into the notes and papers of the contemporary investigator Nandor Fodor but also other resources. It followed Fodor’s sometimes dubious investigations, not only of Mrs Fielding but others who claimed to have poltergeists in residence. It was hugely detailed, and to be honest, it became quite dull. It was patently obvious that Mrs Fielding was a consummate artist, brilliant at sleights of hand and other parts of her body and was just tricking all the earnest investigators. Her story was tragic indeed, but it could have been told more succinctly – and, in my opinion with more imagination.
It was what I had expected, but unlike the story of Mr Whitcher and The Wicked Boy, I didn’t find it sufficiently engaging despite the spectacular sleights of hand/breast/armpit/thigh and more intimate parts of her body; those investigating her just seemed so gullible and maybe with other agendas, that towards the end I was almost flipping through the pages just to finish it. Credit to Summerscale for the mountain of research, but ultimately, despite its potential, it was just rather tedious and long-winded.