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. Why 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.