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July 04, 2022

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale.

The horror of this case was that the corruption lay inside the 'domestic sanctum', that the bolts, locks and fastenings of the house were hopelessly redundant. 'The secret lies with someone who was within ... the household collectively must be responsible for this mysterious and dreadful event. Not one of them ought to be at large till the whole mystery is cleared up ... one (or more) of the family is guilty.' The Morning Post article was reprinted in The Times the next day, and in newspapers throughout the country over the rest of the week. 'Let the best detective talent in the country be engaged,' demanded the Somerset and Wilts Journal. - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 38 -

In the early morning hours of June 30, 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent was abducted from his bed and murdered, his tiny body discovered the next day concealed in the privy, his throat cut ear to ear. The case cast everyone living in the household under suspicion. Samuel Kent (Saville's father), the nursemaid Elizabeth Gough, Constance Kent (Saville's 16 year old half sister), and William Kent (Saville's 14 year old half brother) were to become the focus of the investigation, along with an odd villager named William Nutt who was the man to locate the child's body. Within a short period of time Scotland Yard dispatched Detective-Inspector Jonathan (Jack) Whicher to the scene. Whicher, known for his cunning and skill, and embodying all the traits of the ideal Victorian sleuth would later be demonized for his probing investigation.

The Road Hill Case, as the murder came to be known, not only inflamed the public's imagination, but it also changed the way detectives were viewed and ushered in a new era of fiction called 'sensation fiction.'

Kate Summerscale's book is at once a compelling and fascinating look at Victorian England through the lens of a horrific crime. Summerscale examines nineteenth century societal mores, the evolving view of women, sexual awareness, and the role of the news media and literature in shaping views of morality, guilt and innocence.

Victorian women were seen as pure and innocent creatures, prone to hysteria and fits of insanity.

Women were thought to be prone to insanity, whether as a result of suppressed menstruation, a surplus of sexual energy, or the upheavals of puberty. - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 244 -

In addition, middle class English families had historically found shelter within the walls of their homes. Privacy was rarely interfered with -- even when it came to investigating crimes.

Privacy had become the essential attribute of the middle-class Victorian family, and the bourgeoisie acquired an expertise in secrecy (the word 'secretive' was first recorded in 1853). - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 109 -

When Whicher concluded that the murder of Saville had been committed by his sixteen-year-old half sister, and attempted to shore up that conclusion by probing deep within a middle-class family, the public (and press) were reluctant to accept his theory. Whicher was accused of exploiting the privacy of the family and the innocence of a young girl. In accusing Constance Kent of the brutal crime, Whicher also seemed to be challenging Victorian beliefs.

'The steps you have taken will be such as to ruin her for life -- every hope is gone with regard to this young girl ... And where is the evidence? The one fact -- and I am ashamed in this land of liberty and justice to refer to it -- is the suspicion of Mr. Whicher [...] - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 154 -

It was almost inconceivable that a respectable girl could be possessed of enough fury and emotion to kill, and enough cool to cover it. The public preferred to believe in the detective's villainy, to attribute the moral pollution to him. - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 154 -

I found it interesting to read about the view of the press during the nineteenth century. Not only were they demonized, but later novels based on the Road Hill case and articles which referenced it were thought to be a corrupting influence on those who read them. I am reminded of present day arguments which suggest reading questionable material can damage young minds.

The dizzying expansion of the press in the 1850's prompted worries that readers might be corrupted, infected, inspired by the sex and violence in newspaper articles. The new journalists shared much with the detectives: they were seen alternately as crusaders for truth and as sleazy voyeurs. - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 106 -

In the early 1860s the emotions aroused by the Road Hill murder went underground, leaving the pages of the press to reappear, disguised and intensified, in the pages of fiction. On 6 July 1861, almost exactly a year after the murder, the first installment of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret appeared in Robin Goodfellow magazine. - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 217 -

Many feared that sensation novels were a 'virus' that might create the corruption they described, forming a circle of excitement -- sexual and violent -- that coursed through every stratum of society. - from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, page 219 -

Summerscale's writing is clear and probing. Her book does not just look at a sensational crime, but explores the evolution of today's crime scene investigation, the role of the press in criminal cases, the changing societal mores during the Victorian era, and how real life influenced literature. Wilkie Collins' classic novel The Moonstone is based in large part on the Road Hill murder case. Although certain facts were altered (ie: the crime was not a murder, but a theft; and splashes of paint replaced splashes of blood), the salient features remained intact (a missing nightdress, a renowned detective, a middle class household whose privacy is invaded, and the focus on a young girl within the home).

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a fascinating read for anyone interested in crime solving or mysteries. It will also appeal to those readers who are drawn to Victorian era literature or interested in reading more about the psychology and sociology of the nineteenth century. Summerscales' detailed text made me eager to read some of the fictional literature she referenced.

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".

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Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-06-15
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