KATE SUMMERSCALE. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008).

12 Jul

It was the crime of the century, perpetrated during a century that witnessed the transformation of crime into “sensation”—into the raw material of public spectacle. It was a domestic murder that unfolded in an era when the cult of domesticity was at its zenith. It was a not-quite-solved case, with a dossier full of provocative clues, and it burst open at a moment when professional detection and popular detective fever were beginning to take root as fixtures of modern society. The phrase “detective fever” comes from The Moonstone, the classic early detective novel by Wilkie Collins, and Summerscale not only cites that term but also explores its meaning and implications at considerable length. WhicherCover.jpgWhy do the cold forensic details that make up a criminal investigation arouse such heated fascination among so many people? Why does a violent and mysterious death, especially one that occurs within the intimate setting of a bourgeois home, incite such avid interest among those who have nothing to do with it? The murder of Saville Kent, a three-year-old boy, put those questions into high relief. It shocked people from every class and county in England, and it fueled the imagination of writers like Collins, who drew inspiration for The Moonstone from the exploits of Jonathan Whicher, a Scotland Yard detective who became famous (and infamous) for his feverish quest to name Saville’s killer.

One morning in the summer of 1860, young Saville was found missing from his crib. A short while later, during a search of the grounds at Road Hill House, the home in Wiltshire where the large and prosperous Kent family resided, a local townsman discovered the boy’s dead body under the seat of an outdoor privy. A member of the Kent household—it soon became apparent that no outsider could have done this deed—had stolen away with the toddler in the small hours of the night, had quietly taken him to a dank and forbidding “earth closet,” and had slit his throat, leaving him to bleed to death like a sacrificial lamb. Official suspicion fell at first on Elizabeth Gough, Saville’s nursemaid. She had slept in the same room as the boy, and on the fateful morning she told conflicting stories about the whereabouts of his blanket. Among the public, meanwhile, suspicion fell on Samuel Kent, the family patriarch. The most common speculation was that Saville had awoken to see his father and the nursemaid in a lustful embrace, whereupon the elder Kent acted violently to ensure the boy’s silence. (Samuel Kent had already taken one governess to bed: Several years earlier, he had hired a woman named Mary Pratt to look after the offspring of his first marriage; subsequently, she became his second wife and bore him three children, including Saville.) Clues that could establish the guilt of any party were insubstantial and few in number, however, and the local constabulary turned to Scotland Yard for help. So up from London came Whicher, an original member of the Yard’s detective force (founded in 1842), and his suspicions converged on another possible culprit: Constance Kent, Samuel’s sixteen-year-old daughter.

Whicher, at the time of the Road Hill affair, was already a man of some renown. Charles Dickens had publicized his career as an all-seeing scourge of the London underworld. Other writers, too, had chronicled Whicher’s rise as an exemplar of a new type of urban hero. But the matter of Constance Kent led to a downfall of sorts. The gap between suspicion and proof, between what Whicher theorized and what the men on a Victorian jury were ready to believe about a well-bred maiden, was too wide for the master detective to overcome. Summerscale catches a rich and exciting range of material in the dragnet of her narrative. She explores every documented fact about the murder, and she powerfully evokes the spell that it cast in its time. She even manages to include a surprise twist or two as she brings the story of that killing to a close. Her central focus, however, is on the amazing yet representative life of Jack Whicher, a figure who embodied both the ecstasy and the agony that a bout of detective fever can cause in its victims.

A masterpiece of its under-appreciated genre, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher delivers every variety of emotional pang and intellectual thrill that a true-crime story is capable of providing. It also stands as a prime example of that much rarer thing, a true-detective story.


Posted by on July 12, 2012 in British, Historical, Puzzle, True Crime


7 responses to “KATE SUMMERSCALE. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008).

  1. John

    July 13, 2012 at 10:47 AM

    A fascinating case in criminal history that has spawned so many thoeries, non-fiction studies and a couple of fictional treatments. I was enthralled while reading this book a few years ago when I discovered it through utter serendipity. Some of the best books I’ve read came to me this way – looking for one thign and finding another so much better. This reads like a fictional thirller. It was amazing to me that Whicher was so way ahead of his time in terms of police work. I have to echo something one of my nephews likes to say when he’s feeling complimentary: “What a brainy dude!”

    • Mike

      July 13, 2012 at 5:39 PM

      It seems that we’re in sync about this book. Did you review it on your blog, Pretty Sinister? (Your blog, by the way, is in the top tier of mystery-detective sites that I visit regularly.)

  2. Skywatcher

    July 13, 2012 at 3:22 PM

    A fascinating story. I have to say, though, that it was rather annoying to see reviewers assuming that Summerscale had dug up some half forgotten story. The Constance Kent case has been a standard of true crime for years.Summerscale has tried to pretend that she isn’t writing true-crime; if she isn’t writing true-crime, then what on earth does she thing that she is writing?

    • Mike

      July 13, 2012 at 5:50 PM

      Some of the marketing for the book (which book reviewers then echoed) did indeed overstate the originality of Summerscale’s work. It’s an excellent book, in my view, but it’s excellence lies in the way that she synthesizes the work of many other writers. Meanwhile, I hadn’t seen that Summerscale has suggested that she’s writing something other than true-crime nonfiction. You’re right: That would be a silly thing to say.

  3. Martin Edwards

    July 16, 2012 at 8:00 AM

    I agree that the excellence of this book lies in the writing and presentation of the story rather than in original sleuthing. Dorothy L. Sayers was among those who theorised about this classic case and Agatha Christie was also intrigued by it.

    • Mike

      July 16, 2012 at 8:27 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Martin. (I very much enjoy your own blog, by the way.) Summerscale does, at the close of her book, suggest that a somewhat unlikely suspect was guilty of the Road Hill murder. It’s an intriguing suggestion, but not a wholly convincing one, and she doesn’t push it all that aggressively.

  4. Martin Edwards

    July 16, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    Thanks, Mike. I have added Only Detect to my blogroll.


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