The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

Sometime in the wee hours of June 29, 1860, in Road Hill House in Wiltshire, England, Saville Kent, a child of three, was taken from his cot beside his nursemaid?s bed and murdered. His body was discovered hours later in the servants? outdoor privy. His throat had been slit and his chest bore a deep knife wound; there were cuts on his hands and signs of smothering. An open drawing-room window might have suggested that the culprit had entered from the grounds, but police investigation showed that to be physically impossible. It was clear, alas, that the murderer was one of the family members or servants who slept in the house that fatal night.

This murder lies at the center of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and it could be called a perfect crime: not because the perpetrator escaped detection but because its particulars perfectly captured and intensified key anxieties and preoccupations of its time and place. Not only did it represent a violation of the Victorian tabernacle, the home, but as an inside job, it fed a lurking unease that the sacred haven of privacy was also an incubator of passion, a realm of secrecy and unwholesome deeds. "Perhaps," Summerscale writes, summarizing this feeling, "privacy was a source of sin, the condition that enabled the sweet domestic scene to rot from its core."

Was something rotten at Road Hill? Possibly. The head of the family, Samuel Kent, was on his second wife, the family?s former governess, who, it was suggested, had usurped the first Mrs. Kent before the death of that lady, who was said to be mad. Had Samuel transferred his affections yet again, this time to his young son?s nursemaid? Had the illicit couple been "intriguing," as Charles Dickens put it, in her bed in the nursery that night? Dickens was fascinated by the case -- all over it like Inspector Bucket -- and set out his views in a letter to Wilkie Collins, whose The Woman in White was being serialized as events unfolded at Road Hill House: "Poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes body to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same."

One person who did not buy this scenario was Inspector Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, sent from London a couple of weeks after the murder. To be sure, he too found domestic arrangements in Road Hill House worth pondering. Kent?s four children by his first marriage clearly ranked lower than the three of his second, and there was evidence of resentment. Whicher?s prime suspect, one of the less-favored children, had a history of daring, disruptive behavior and possible madness. Though you will not learn who Whicher fingered from me, Summerscale does not, in fact, make much of a secret of it. She follows Whicher?s investigation, and, thanks to his doggedness and acumen, he knows -- and we know -- halfway through the book who is the villain.

Not that this knowledge did the ace sleuth much good -- quite the reverse. Before Whicher had arrived on the scene, the local police had thoroughly bungled the case, in great part out of class deference. They had searched both the persons and belongings of the servants but did not subject the Kent family members to similar unpleasantness. Whicher, however, did not recognize such distinctions when it came to ferreting out the truth. His snooping -- which extended deep into the family?s dirty laundry -- bore fruit and inspired one newspaper to pronounce that the "whole moral interior of the house ought to be laid bare to the public gaze." But Whicher?s investigations also outraged public sensibilities, fuelling the horror that a mere functionary could go fossicking through a respectable family?s most private effects. The feeling of desecration carried into the arraignment hearing, the defense depicting Whicher, in Summerscale?s words, as "vulgar, greedy, rapacious" and "a clumsy, lower-class despoiler of a virginal innocent." The suspect was freed and Whicher?s career was badly damaged. He was denounced in Parliament, and lived in bitterness for almost five years. Then he was thoroughly vindicated, in a manner I shall leave you to discover.

Summerscale says she has modeled her book on "the country-house mystery." Certainly, the story she tells is absorbing in its attention to character, material detail, and the relation between the several players. She adds her own deductions, going beyond the final verdict to show that the guilty party most likely did not act alone and to suggest who was the probable accomplice. She also puts forward a most unsavory hypothesis at book?s end that is satisfyingly, if shockingly, plausible. What is more, she provides floor plans, so essential to the country-house mystery, as well as a family tree, list of characters, little maps, sketches, and wonderful photographs to pore over.

Still, the book is something less than a mystery -- and more. Summerscale?s real focus is cultural and psychological. She shows how the murder, its domestic context, and the process of detection matched both a darkening mood in the country concerning the family and a general distaste for and fascination with criminal investigation. She would also like to show that the Road Hill case not only "inspired 'detective fever' throughout England" but actually "set the course of detective fiction" and "helped shape the fiction of the 1860s and beyond, most obviously Wilkie Collins?s The Moonstone." This will not convince those who have actually read that great novel -- to say nothing of Dickens?s Bleak House (serialized 1852-53) or Collins?s earlier stories in which horrid family secrets and detectives abound. And perhaps it won?t convince those who haven?t either, for even as Summerscale lays out her arguments for the decisive influence of the Road Hill House case on the direction of fiction, she provides more than sufficient evidence to disprove the notion. It is clear by her own account that public fascination with the case and the appearance of The Moonstonewere simply two aspects of the same mid-Victorian temper. Be that as it may, both as a story and an analysis of a historical mood, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a thumping good read.

July 25: On this day in 1834 Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease at the age of sixty-one.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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