“A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.”
A couple of years ago I saw a great BBC documentary by Lucy Worsley about the history of detective fiction, which mentioned the Road Hill House murder and its influence on the development of the genre. In spite of having seen this I was still expecting The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher to be a work of fiction and for Jack Whicher to be a made up detective. I think I thought it would be a bit like Arthur & George, sort of half fact/half fiction. It’s not like that at all – this is very much a factual account of real events – and I felt a bit silly when I realised my mistake. Thankfully the realisation just made me even more intrigued, it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment.
On the 29th June 1860 the body of three year old Saville Kent was discovered in a privy in the grounds of his family home in Road, Wiltshire. In the days after his murder suspicion fell onto his immediate family, his nursemaid and the servants who lived alongside them in Road Hill House. It caused a sensation. The idea that this evil could be lurking inside a respectable middle-class home fascinated the public. The gory details were hammered out daily in the press and discussed at dinner parties: the Home Office was inundated with letters from armchair detectives offering possible solutions. Even Dickens had his own theories about the identity of the killer. Kate Summerscale’s book looks at the investigation carried out by Jack Whicher, one of the very first detectives, who was sent by Scotland Yard to take over the murder enquiry after it went astray. She looks at how the public reacted to the crime, the lasting effect on Whicher and its influence on the evolution of crime and detective fiction.
I must admit that I’m not really a fan of the non-fiction ‘true crime’ genre. I tend to prefer my murders fictional. The thing about this book, though, is that the crime isn’t particularly interesting in itself. You can find more cunning suspects, more intricate plots and cleverer detectives in the many works of fiction that were influenced by it. Instead Summerscale shows you why it fascinated people. She suggests that the murder of Saville Kent played on people’s darkest fears and sparked a fascination with crime and detectives that is still noticeable today. This is despite the fact that at the time the public were, on the whole, less than supportive of Whicher’s investigation. In June 1860 Whicher was one of just eight detectives in the entire country and he was treated with a degree of suspicion. Many people associated detective work with spying and it seemed outrageous that a working class man should be allowed to pry into the private affairs of a respectable gentleman and his family. Despite his best efforts Whicher’s investigation was hit by a number of setbacks – not least the lying and resentful local police, an ineffectual legal team and a lack of popular support – and he retired a few years later, a disillusioned and broken man.
For me the most interesting parts of this book were those which looked at the wider influence of the case on fictional portrayals of crime and detection. The Road Hill House case was the first ‘country house murder’, which became a staple of the crime fiction genre. You can see traces of the case in works by Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins; versions of Whicher and his colleagues appear as Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. I really like the fact that Summerscale devotes as much attention to fictional detectives as real ones. As a fan of traditional crime fiction it was interesting to see a prototype for some of my favourite fictional detectives in action.
The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher is incredibly well researched and never veers off into gory sensationalism, as it could very easily do in the wrong hands. I’ve heard it described by some as a bit dry and too detailed, a bit like Summerscale was trying to include all the minute details she’d uncovered in her research regardless of whether they were interesting or relevant. I’d disagree though; maybe I don’t need to know how much Whicher’s monthly pay packet was but all those intricate details go towards painting a really vivid picture of the times.
There was a little bit of me that was disappointed this wasn’t a fictional case and could be wrapped up more neatly. I had so many questions remaining at the end – How did the Kents react to the uncovering of the killer? Had they suspected? How did Whicher react when his suspicions were proved right? It’s not Summerscale’s fault, of course, that these questions can’t be answered; there’s just not enough evidence so she (quite rightly) doesn’t speculate. The difficulty is that it’s such a readable book that you can almost forget that these were real people, not characters.