The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

What a fascinating book! Summerscale relates the events leading up to and following a true crime, the murder of a child in Road Hill House in June of 1860. The Road Hill murder captured the public's imagination, as did Jon-Benet Ramsey's murder more recently. During the decade previous to the Road Hill murder, the number of newspapers had multiplied at an astonishing rate, going from 700 in 1855 to 1,100 in 1860. Domestic killings had become popular fodder—even then, apparently, “if it bleeds, it leads”—and the Road Hill murder, with its twists and turns, took over the headlines.

One of the best things about this book is the way it puts the details of the case into the cultural context of Victorian English society. For example, it was only in the 19th century that the home of the nuclear family became a “sacred space”, a secure refuge that should not be violated by public scrutiny or by government aggression. Every home a castle, in other words. One newspaper of the time even compared this tradition to a castle’s moat. I wonder if this cultural change could be related to the concurrent proliferation of newspapers with their daily fare of sex and violence.

Among others, Charles Dickens was fascinated by the case. He believed, as did the local police and a majority of the public, that Samuel Kent, the father, and Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid, were responsible. The popular scenario held that three-year-old Saville must have woken in the night to see the two engaged in, er, inappropriate behavior, and was killed to keep him from telling anyone.

Summerscale enables us to follow the case along with the police and public. She gives us the clues, the interviews, the photographs of the major players, extracts of newspaper articles. She includes drawings of the layout of the house and yard, just as the papers of the day did, exposing that private space and the family’s private actions to public view. We learn about the history of the Kents, that the second Mrs. Kent, Saville’s mother, had been governess to her four stepchildren during Mr. Kent’s first marriage, to a woman said to be insane. Jane Eyre had been published 13 years earlier, in 1847.

The man named to investigate the murder was Jack Whicher, one of the eight men selected for the first detective unit to be set up in England. These men, making up their methods as they went along, thrilled the public with their exploits and became the models for Wilkie Collins's Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone and Dickens’s Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Whicher himself was well-known as a quiet, shrewd, and successful detective. He later played a significant role in the case of the Tichborne Claimant.

Assigned to the case over two weeks after the murder, Whicher found himself at odds with the local police. Not only did they refuse to cooperate with the London detective, but during the intervening weeks, they had lost important clues and allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by the Kent family. For example, on the night after the murder’s discovery, the policemen assigned to stay in Road Hill House and prevent the family from tampering with clues spent the night locked in the kitchen by Mr. Kent, a fact they later tried to cover up.

Whicher’s investigation was also hampered by public pressure when he arrested someone other than the nursemaid, Gough, for the crime. Knowing who has committed a crime and proving it are two different things, of course, and this crime, like so many in our day, was tried not only in the courtroom but in the press and the pubs and the breakfast rooms. Summerscale’s book gives us a resolution of sorts, but doubts remain as to what really happened on that June night.

The Road Hill murder inspired many early English detective stories: The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well as The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Yonge's The Trial. Only a few years earlier, in 1849, the first English detective story had appeared, so the genre was still in its infancy. I highly recommend this true story of the origins of the English detective story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>