The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.
Ostensibly a true-crime story of the murder of a three year old Victorian child, Saville Kent, in his own upper middle class home, Summerscale’s Mr. Whicher delves into the history of detection and detective stories, the literary influences of pioneers in the detective genre, word studies of related detective terms, and the early history Scotland Yard in particular. The author actually uses the facts of the murder of Saville Kent to explore all sorts of rabbit trails and interesting by-paths as she also explains the investigation of the murder and its aftermath.
“The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread or yarn. I had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The writers of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word.”
Now, I knew about Theseus and the escape from the labyrinth, but I didn’t know that the word ‘clue” derived from that mythological event.
I also learned a lot about Jonathan Whicher and the early detectives of Scotland Yard. Mostly bachelors and drawn from the lower middle or lower class, these early detectives sometimes identified more closely with the criminals they were entrusted to apprehend than with the staid denizens of middle class London and the of the countryside whom they were sworn to protect. Whicher himself, one of the eight original Scotland Yard officers, was the subject of an article in DIckens’ Household Words in 1850, and according to Summerscale was something of a model, or at least an influence, for Dickens’ Bleak House, Wilkie Collins The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a popular novel of the 1860’s, was also directly influenced by the Road Hill murder, as the murder of Saville Kent came to be known. (The Woman in White and The Turn of the Screw are the only ones of these books that I’ve actually read, and I can see the influences in both.)
THe actual investigation of the Road Hill murder was a difficult case with rather unsatisfactory results: no one was actually convicted of the crime until years later when the murderer, as the result of a guilty conscience and a conversion experience, confessed. And the confession itself may have been only partially true. But the light that Summerscale sheds in her book on the origins and psychology of criminal investigation and of detective fiction is thought-provoking and revealing of a modern mindset that sees the detective and his work as a metaphor for the revelation of secrets and the desire of the public to know (and sometimes not to know) the private business of families in the interest of either justice or voyeurism.
Other readers say:
Stephen Lang: “In 1860 the middle class and seemingly ordinary Kent family were subject to intense scrutiny following the murder of their young son. Inspector Jack Whicher, one of the first police officers honoured the distinction of detective, is despatched to investigate and what followed was a case that spanned several decades. Summerscale also proves that fact is far stranger than any invented murder mystery, and superbly chronicles the events that drew the attention of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and even Queen Victoria.”
Educating Petunia: “One of the elements that held my interest throughout was the inclusion of excerpts and background from popular detective fiction that the case inspired. I now have small list of books I want to read right away but with an eye for connections to this story.”
Nicola at Back to Books: “Well written in an engaging voice and obviously well-researched this is a gem of a book for those interested in Victorian life. Though the book focuses on a true crime and the police procedures of the time there is a wealth of information on all aspects of life in the time period. I also went into this book not knowing anything about the murder case itself and found the revealing of the investigation and eventually the killer to be as exciting as any mystery novel.”