The Queen of Whale Cay

I’ve read several books by the author Kate Summerscale; she writes historical investigations using contemporary resources such as newspapers and  police reports, and delves into a particular mystery, person, or event – or a combination of events. Her research is amazingly detailed, fantastically meticulous, and I’ve sometimes thought what ends up in her book is just too detailed, and the meticulous research more than enough. Sometimes the amount she writes, to me, seems to mask the events, or take away from their impact.

The first book I read by her was one I came across through reading a review of it, ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ about a nineteenth century murder of a toddler by a member of his own family or household. This is a comment I made about it: There is so much in this book, and in a way there is too much… I felt like saying “Oh for goodness sake, Kate, just get on with it!” I can’t criticise it for style or skill or the detail which she has included, but it just overwhelms the reader. She offers a solution, the accepted verdict at the time, she offers an explanation for the crime, and she follows the characters to the end of their lives… but I just wish it had been slimmed down, it all fell a little flat, it was all a little… dare I say turgid? It is certainly fascinating, and I know many people think it’s an amazing study of a tragic incident in an ordinary family’s life and what ensued, so I would recommend it…

I enjoyed it enough, and was impressed enough to read another book by her, ‘The Wicked Boy’. It was the account of another family murder, this time it was not a child who was murdered, but a child who murdered. Once again there was a huge amount of detail about what was indeed a wicked murder, and again I wrote about it: ‘The Wicked Boy’  the biography of a boy who was convicted of murdering his mother in 1895 and was then sent to Broadmoor Hospital He was thirteen at the time of the crime and as it wasn’t until 1908 that execution of children under the age of sixteen was banned, he could have had a death sentence. The biography follows Robert Coombe’s life from the time he stabbed his mother to his trial, his confinement and beyond to his life after he was released after thirteen years and eventually started a new life in Australia. The early life of Robert leading up to the crime is explored and a tentative theory is put forward about what led to this dreadful act – and the almost horrific events in the days which followed until the murder was discovered.

This year Kate Summerscale published another non-fiction book; it was a mystery, but I’m not sure there was a crime – or at least it’s debatable what sort of crime was committed by Alma Fielding. The true story happened in the twentieth century and involved the research by contemporary psychic investigators into a woman around whom poltergeist activity happened. It sounded intriguing, and indeed Alma Fielding herself was intriguing but the huge amount of research and evidence which she included just slowed the narrative to the point where I was actually struggling to read it. These were my comments on ‘The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story’ : 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.

I have just embarked on a fourth book by Summerscale – yes, despite my criticisms I find what she writes interesting and thought-provoking. I am now reading The Queen of Whale Cay, the story of an intriguing character, Marion Barbara aka ‘Joe’ Carstairs who was born a hundred and twenty years ago in 1900. I’m only sixty or so pages into it, but I am really enjoying it, not because of the subject or her interesting life, but because Summerscale has written it in such an engaging way. So far there is plenty of detail, but not too much, and woven into the narrative so it supports what happens to Joe rather than drowns him/her. It was Summerscale’s first book and she started to write it having received a letter from a woman  about an obituary Kate had written for Joe Carstairs. This incident, the receipt of the letter starts the book and leads us into the story of Joe as Kate researches her and begins to interview those who knew her. I”m only a little way in, but it is written with a lightness of touch which I didn’t feel in her other books. The detail is there, masses of detail but it meshes with the story-line perfectly. Maybe I will think differently when I have finished it, but I have to say it’s more accessible than her other books, and more engaging, particularly the previous one I read, ‘The Haunting of Alma Fielding’.

Here are Kate Summerscale’s books in the order they were published – I haven’t yet read the Mrs Robinson book, but maybe I should!:

  • The Queen of Whale Cay, 1997
  • The Suspicions of Mr Whicher  2008
  • Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, 2012
  • The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer,  2016
  • The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, 2020

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