Further recommendations: Mr Whicher and the Hornet’s Nest

OK, aside from the obvious Secret Histories and Panda Book of Horror (OUT NOW BUY BUY BUY), a couple more recommendations for things I’ve enjoyed recently:

Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House is a factual account of a brutal murder in mid-19th century England, told with the pace and verve of a novel.

Summerscale’s book captures a relatively brief moment between the creation of professional policing and the development of forensic science where real detectives and fictional detective work were not totally unrelated, where, without the analytical science now available, crimes were solved by a combination of intuition and reasoning. While there’s an intellectual romance about this form of crime fighting that appeals, the book doesn’t stint on how unreliable a method this was, of how dependent on the guilty party’s confession a conviction could be.

It’s interesting to compare Mr Whicher to the sections of Jonathan Stapleton’s original book on the Road Hill case quoted within. Stapleton expands out the known details – and as a first hand witness to the investigation and a friend of the victim’s father, he had access to more than most – with florid prose. Summerscale takes a different approach, one more consistent with current non-fiction, never hesitating to expand on any social or historical detail raised in the course of the story. It’s a fascinating series of digressions, ones which show that, in spite of great social change, how the behaviour of the public in regards to shocking crimes has always been insensitive, obsessive, fickle and crass.

Next up, a Doctor Who story (or stories). With Who dominating the airwaves over Christmas, any more might seem excessive, but Hornet’s Nest, a series of five CDs from BBC Audiobooks, is distinctly different from the all-ages bombast of the current TV show.

Thankfully, in spite of marking Tom Baker’s first proper return to the role after only brief appearances in telethons and theme nights, Hornet’s Nest isn’t a direct return to a version of the character and the show that played itself out over the actor’s long initial run and has been strip-mined in novels, short stories and comic strips ever since.

Paul Magrs story/stories – the five CDs are linked into one narrative, but are each distinct – is/are closer to being an imaginary BBC4 Who spin-off to sit alongside the ones on BBC3 and CBBC, a version of that universe aimed at an older audience that remembers Ghost Stories for Christmas with fondness, shot on a low budget and aiming for slow burning chills. It’s essentially a series of fireside tales exchanged between Baker’s Doctor and retired soldier Mike Yates, two old men sharing scary stories and going on one last big adventure.

The insistence on drawing a seventies period Tom on the covers, and placing it within that continuity in the dialogue, seems unnecessary and intrusive, a handwavy sop to obsessives and the BBC licensing department, who doubtless frown upon spin-offs chucking a brick through such continuity staples as which-Doctor-regenerated-when. This is an older Tom different to the one who descended into boggle-eyed tedium on-screen, and a different type of Who story tailored to its leads current tastes, a story full of the macabre and weird, as well as cottages, wolfhounds and whiskey.

Magrs makes a virtue of writing for his star’s tastes, and goes full-tilt with a story that’s genuinely creepy in places, and even manages to make that repetitive staple of early Tom stories, possession by aliens, work in a new and interesting way. The acting is fantastic, Tom being better here than a lot of his TV appearances, maybe better than he’s ever been and Richard Franklin’s older Captain Yates is certainly more interesting than the uncomfortable romantic lead he was cast as in the 70s. While a couple of the supporting cast hit the button marked ‘northern whimsy’ with a repetitive frenzy I could have lived without, there are great turns by the likes of Michael Maloney and Stephen Thorne – and in what other medium than radio could the towering Thorne play an Italian midget, hmm?

Hornet’s Nest is an entertaining, spooky new take on Who, and well worth investing in, an atmospheric treat for the cold winter months.


December 17, 2009. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized.


  1. Paul Magrs replied:

    What a lovely, lovely review! Thanks! Secretly, I picture Tom in Nest Cottage looking exactly as he did on the cover of the Radio Time 40th Anniversary Special issue in 2003, complete with new June Hudson outfit.So pleased you liked the series,paul

  2. Rankersbo replied:

    Electronically feeling my presents, I predict my brother in law has bought me HN1.Reading reviews of Suspisions I heard lots of people who said it was dull and badly written. However these seemed to be "True Crime" fans. Not lurid enough for them?

  3. Mark Clapham replied:

    Paul – Yeah, I can see that. Rankers – I misread that and thought your brother was getting you a strain of flu for Christmas. Whicher isn't as beautifully written as, say, Andrew O'Hagan's 'The Missing', which is the most poetic book on crime I've ever read. But it's good pop history in a clear, evocative style.

  4. Stephen replied:

    Good heavens, we're listening/reading to exactly the same things. Eerie. I'm only up to part four of Hornet's Nest, but loving it so far.

  5. Mags replied:

    @rankerso – I think Whicher isn't sensationalist, which is why True Crime fans would find it 'dull and badly written'. It's as much about detectives – and the public – learning what detection is as it is about the actual crime. The crime itself is particularly nasty, but Summerscale doesn't focus on it as much as on what it reveals about mid-19th society. The class assumptions, the gender biases, the as-yet-uncertain role of a detective. As well as illuminating the crime, it illuminates Dickens' use of real crime in Bleak House etc etc. I got it for my dad for Christmas and, now Mark has finished with my copy, am going to lend it to someone I work with.

  6. Mark Clapham replied:

    Stephen – I think A Sting in the Tale is my favourite one, which is why I used the cover for it in the post.

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