Inspector Whicher and the green biro

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 28, 2013

A few years ago a modern English detective published an exceptional blog, for a time, called NightJack. It was fantastic stuff; it won the Orwell Prize and while I only heard about it after it had essentially finished, I’ve read the whole thing more than once.

I also found myself recalling some of NightJack‘s comments about the realities of policing a year or so later, while reading about one of his earliest predecessors, Jonathan Whicher. Despite a gulf of 150 years between them, I suspect that England’s first Detective Jack and one of its more recent could readily commiserate about certain hazards of the job.

Life as an English detective, 1851 (from Brilliant Deduction):

…after nearly a decade observing London’s criminal fraternity come and go, Sergeant Whicher immediately recognized two men stopping for a chat near the London & Westminster Bank. One was a familiar ex-con, returned from an involuntary sojourn in Australia; the fellow joining him on a bench facing the bank was “another old lag.” Whicher and a colleague kept up observation of the pair, who spent the following weeks absorbed in their own surveillance of the bank’s schedules and security. When the would-be bank robbers, confident of their preparation, finally moved on the bank on June 18, they were completely surprised by police lying in wait and their attempt to escape on foot was easily foiled. The result of Whicher’s keen observation and patience: letters to The Times criticizing this reckless, inefficient and entirely unsporting approach.

Life as an English detective, 2008 (from NightJack):

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, there are a certain number of letters received by public bodies each year that are written in green biro. When you see that green biro writing, it is almost certain that the communication will be a pointless rant of epic proportions and usually anonymous.

Read more…

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The Butcher of Wapping

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 5, 2013

File this one under “I get no respect,” perhaps. A little while ago I picked up a cute little volume at the Lakewood Library titled I Never Knew That About London. (The cover is delightfully restrained.)

Christopher Winn’s geographically organized tour of relatively little-noted features and historical associations of the London landscape includes, among tidbits like “where London’s first nude statue is” and “the house where Handel and Jimi Hendrix both lived,” a small connection to one of the city’s great real-life detectives—kind of.

In strolling through Wapping, Winn notes its connection to the Tichborne Claimant case., which held the British public spellbound for years in the 1870s and which detective Jonathan Whicher played a key role in resolving. (Skeptics of The Claimant to the Tichborne fortune accused him, in time, of being in fact an ordinary butcher originally from Wapping.) In a double-dissing, however, Winn not only makes no mention of Whicher, but also trivializes his achievement itself by suggesting that the Claimant’s alleged imposture was obviously ludicrous the entire time. This verdict is, I will note, considerably at variance with both the case’s proceedings themselves and with most of those who have looked back upon it, since, including recent works such as Kate Summerscale’s.

On the other hand, however, overlooking Whicher is (with occasional exceptions like Ms. Summerscale) much more in keeping with tradition. Neither the link I’ve posted above nor the Wikipedia article on the case include any mention of Mr. Whicher.

Ah well. There is a silver lining, at least: if everyone were already giving the great detectives their due, I would have much less of a story to tell…

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