Category Archives: True Crime

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

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


JAMES FOX. White Mischief: The Murder of Lord Erroll (1983).

True crime, with rare exceptions, lacks the glamour, the intricacy, the poetic structure, the multiplicity of suspects, and the array of suggestive clues that go into making a good fake crime story. WhiteMischiefMovie.jpgHomicide, in practice, is usually dull where it isn’t sordid and sordid where it isn’t dull, and either there is no mystery to it at all or there is no hope that a satisfying resolution will ever emerge from the non-pattern of facts that it leaves behind. But in 1941, within the community of white settlers in Kenya known as Happy Valley, a murder took place that might have come straight out of a Golden Age detective yarn.

The victim and everyone in his circle resemble characters from the world of Agatha Christie, with secrets to hide and grudges to bear. They have multiple connections to one another by blood or marriage (often, in fact, because they have multiple marriages), plenty of servants to order about (servants who might see, and then report, incriminating activity), and ample leisure in which to cause trouble—for themselves, through drink or general dissipation, and for others, through adultery or vicious backbiting or worse. The Happy Valley set, consisting of moneyed and titled people who have failed to fit socially in their home country, is at bottom a pretty unhappy bunch. So, on the morning of January 24, 1941, when the body of Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, pierced by a bullet and slumped under the steering wheel of his Buick touring car, is found at a crossroads outside Nairobi, police can direct their attention to a select group of people who theoretically had the means, the opportunity, and especially the motive to put him into that state.

Investigators also have a rich, fiction-worthy set of clues to pursue: ballistics evidence; scuff marks found in the back seat of Erroll’s car; rumors of jealousy-charged scenes at the Muthaiga Country Club, the center of Happy Valley social life; reports of comings and goings that may or may not add up to alibis. Before long, the authorities arrest Sir “Jock” Delves Broughton and bring him to trial for murder. (Erroll had been carrying on an open affair with Broughton’s much younger wife, Diana.) A jury acquits Broughton of the crime, however, and alternative theories of the case linger for years in the local gossip. Might one of Erroll’s spurned former lovers be the culprit? Did political machinations—Erroll had entered wartime service as Assistant Military Secretary for East Africa—lead to his assassination?

WhiteMischiefHQ.jpgThe way that Fox tells this tale detracts a little from its intrinsic appeal. Instead of focusing on pertinent events that occurred before or soon after Lord Erroll’s death, he devotes much of his narrative to research efforts that he undertook in the late 1960s with Cyril Connolly, a once-famous English man of letters who nursed a decades-long obsession with the killing. (The two writers collaborated on a piece about the case for the Sunday Times of London.) That obsession, and the often fruitless inquiries that arose from it, seem to intrigue Fox as much as the original mystery does. What fascinated Connolly most about the Erroll murder story was the vanished milieu of aristocratic decadence in which it unfolded, and Fox, in that same spirit, colors in many corners of the Happy Valley backdrop that have no bearing on the crime of 1941. As with a fictional murder story, readers come to the end of this book with a vivid awareness of who the guilty party must have been. But Fox conveys that insight with the wistful implication that it might be better not to know the killer’s identity. To him, ultimately, the crime matters far less than the “truth” that surrounds it.

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Posted by on May 21, 2010 in British, Golden Age, True Crime


ERIK LARSON. The Devil in the White City (2003).

History, indigestible in its raw form, is ultimately a matter of how you slice it. Larson cuts out two pieces of Chicago history, circa 1893, and juxtaposes them in a way that casts a dramatic shadow over the larger piece and an aura of significance over the smaller one. DevilWhiteCitySmall.jpg The big piece was the World’s Columbian Exposition, an epoch-defining convocation on the shore of Lake Michigan that introduced visitors to the Ferris Wheel, Shredded Wheat, alternating-current electricity, and the idea that the frontier era in U.S. history had come to a close. The setting for these and other wonders of the fair was the fabled White City, an expanse of alabaster buildings, all designed in a Beaux Arts style by Daniel Burnham and his team of illustrious architects. (Burnham’s struggles to plan and erect the fair’s physical plant occupy much of the book; Larson has an undue faith in his readers’ taste for tales of bureaucratic jousting.) The relatively small piece, in world-historical terms, was the homicidal career of Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett, alias H.H. Holmes, arguably the first American serial killer of the modern type. Holmes built a hotel—later known as his “murder castle”—not far from the White City and lured possibly dozens of victims to it. Aside from that geographic coincidence, the two stories have a connection to one another that’s chiefly symbolic: The White City looms as a vision of civic progress and public virtue that the real Chicago, playing host to a “devil” like Holmes, fell well short of realizing. Larson, by wedging these pieces together in this way, makes vivid a previously drab-seeming portion of the American past.

[ADDENDUM: A few years ago, in advance of my first trip to Chicago, my mom recommended that I read The Devil in the White City. So I did read it. And I liked it. Crime, history, architecture, an evocation of the seam-bursting vitality of a great city: What’s not to like? While planning my trip, I discovered that the Chicago Architectural Foundation now offers a tour based on the Larson book. I went on another CAF tour, but had no interest in traveling by bus to “see” places—the White City, Holmes’s murder castle—that no longer exist. The best place to tour those buildings is in the pages of this book.]

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Posted by on April 6, 2010 in American, Historical, True Crime