Laudable Audio: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Book

If you’ve read some of our previous posts, you’ve probably noticed that several of us are avid audiobook listeners. In my case, it’s because I work with my hands a lot–sewing, knitting, and at my job making handmade wigs–so I need something to keep my brain busy at the same time. (The hands-free format, of course, also makes for ideal snacking-while-reading.) Not long ago, my co-worker Meredith and I discovered our new listening obsession: Kate Summerscale! Our boss had just listened to her book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, and couldn’t stop talking about it, so of course we had to find out what all the fuss was about.

Kate Summerscale writes meticulously researched non-fiction books about history, mostly the 19th and early 20th centuries. Mr. Whicher is the story of the Road Hill House Murder–one of the most publicly scrutinized cases of the mid-19th century. Expertly entwined with the story of four-year-old Saville Kent’s brutal murder at his family’s home (reconstructed through court records, newspaper articles, and letters), is fascinating information about the history of detection, the Victorian attitude towards both the police force and the press, and the case’s influence in popular literature of the time. Mr. Whicher, the London detective called out to investigate the case after local efforts failed, was a figure of fascination to writers like Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Detectives, after all, had only been around for a few decades. Think of the fascination that the detective process still holds for us today, and then imagine that the entire genre is brand new! Details of the case can be found popping up everywhere from Dickens’ Bleak House, to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational novel Lady Audley’s Secret.

While backing up every detail with historical evidence, and only rarely straying into clearly-marked speculation, Summerscale still manages to keep the story engaging–never dry or dull. It takes true talent to be able to present every bit of documentation and evidence without sounding like Professor Binns. We were riveted the entire way through.

I didn’t get a chance to take a gander at this book’s citation page, since we were listening, but I’d imagine it’s a doozy. If you’re a fan of history, true crime, or Victorian literature, I highly recommend giving this book a try. I’ve only ever been a sporadic reader of non-fiction, but this has me seeking out more by Kate Summerscale!

Why Audio?

While I certainly recommend this book in any form (it has also been made into a TV movie for ITV, followed by several other fictionalized tales about Mr. Whicher’s career), I have to give a plug for the audiobook. Mr. Whicher appears to have two different audio versions, an abridged version read by Harriet Walters, or the unabridged version read by Simon Vance. I can’t speak to the abridged version–it is more than three hours shorter than the unabridged, so I’d imagine you miss a lot of the tidbits of history that were some of my favorite parts.

Simon Vance does a masterful job with the narration of the unabridged book. He has a deep, gravelly voice that brings to mind Christopher Lee, or Vincent Price–perfect for the chilling tale of a young boy’s murder. It’s no wonder he’s won a grand total of 75 awards for audiobook narration, including for his reading of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

I hope this inspires you to give The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher a try, even if you, like me, were dubious at the thought of listening to non-fiction. It was my first non-fiction audiobook, but it’s already not my last!

Kissing the Witch : Safai Café


Plot Summary

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue is a series of interconnected short stories. Each one takes a familiar fairy tale, and focuses it heavily on the female characters: their inner lives, their trials, and their interactions. In each tale, the heroine meets another woman, be it step-mother, maid, witch, or fortune-teller, and one way, or another, asks that woman to tell her own story. In this way the tales move backwards through time, with the youngest woman telling the first story, and each new character telling her own tale back through the generations.

Lady Factor

Kissing the Witch focuses almost exclusively on the female characters. The stories are peopled with many common folktale archetypes–princesses, queens, witches, mothers, step-mothers, but often these familiar characters are not quite as you’ve seen them before. The step-mothers and witches, usually relegated to evil-doing and ignominious death, are allowed to explain themselves by telling of their pasts, and putting a new perspective on what may be seen as evil. The princesses are able to see though their protective shells and make their own ways in the world. All of these changes are achieved through women’s interactions with other women. It is a beautiful illustration of the way women can be powerful, and especially on the way the strength of women is magnified through learning from and working with other women.

Language/Tone/Writing Style

The stories in this book utilize a lot of the language and structure of fairy tales, using repeated words and phrases, and sparse, poetic language. These tales don’t need flowery embellishment. They depart from the traditional folktale in one major way: most fairy tales are told in the third person, while these are in the first person. Often in fairy tales, the protagonist is the only person given a real name “Cinderella” or “Snow White”, while the other characters are all called by their Archetypal title “Prince”, “Step-mother”, “King”. These stories follow this convention, except that because of the first-person voice, the protagonists are only referred to as “I” and “me”. These stories are universal, they don’t need to belong to any name in particular.


Since there are many stories, there are also many characters in this book. The central women get the most attention, since they each appear in two stories, and at two different stages in their lives. I talked about that above, and will touch on it again below, so I’ll leave it there for this section!

Wow moment/flashpoint

We all had different “wow moments” in this book, depending on which stories we connected with the most. Every time one of us brought up a part that had really struck us, all the rest would go “Oh, yeah, that part was great”, even though we all had different parts we wanted to talk about.

I think my biggest “wow moment” came after reading the book, as I went back to flip through the stories and really think about how they connected, and which characters were the same character at two different ages, like the Queen in Snow White being the maid from The Goose Girl. Reading it through the first time, I had just enjoyed each story without really thinking of how they were connected, but the more connections you look at, the more meaning you can find in each characterization, and the more sense the often misunderstood older versions of the characters become.

Is this a good book club book? Discussion highlights?

Absolutely! We talked about it for over two hours with hardly any digressions. We got to talk about fairy tales and folklore in general as well, which is such a large and interesting topic, but there is so much to talk about in this collection in particular: ideas of identity, self-knowledge, taking control of your life, the difference between good and evil, and how many good things can be perceived as evil depending on who gets to tell the story.

Book Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!



Safai serves up many of your normal coffee shop pastries, plus local Cellar Door Chocolates, and freshly made crêpes (both sweet and savory). We got tasty drinks from coffee to smoothies (though I will say that their matcha tea is far too sweet, but I’ve never yet found a coffee shop that did tea really well. It’s understandable, it’s not their thing). No one tried any of the sweets, but several of us got different savory crêpes, which come with either chips or salad. They aren’t overly exciting, but they are tasty, and a good portion for crêpes. I definitely recommend getting some of the mustard cheddar in yours!


It’s a coffee shop, so any table service is pretty perfunctory, but the staff was friendly and quick. They did bring the crêpes to our table, which is nice since we didn’t have to keep an ear out for our names being called.


It’s a cute place with local art on the walls where we were, and plenty of space. There are many different kinds of seating depending on your preference: low tables, regular tables, couches, bar with high stools.

Ease of discussion

There is a large table in the foyer area, which you can reserve for a group meeting. We sat there, and it’s a nice private area to have a good discussion. It’s separated from most of the other customers, all though there is some additional seating in the same area, so you don’t have to worry about disturbing the entire shop. We would definitely recommend it if you want to have a meeting over coffee-but do call ahead to make sure the big table will be available when you need it!

Food Rating: 4 out of 5 servings