THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER
A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective.
By Kate Summerscale.
Illustrated. 360 pp. Walker & Company. $24.95.
Marilyn Stasio/The New York Times
Fact and fiction do not so much blur as bleed into each other in “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” Kate Summerscale’s fastidious reconstruction and expansive analysis of the Road Hill murder case, which centered on an infamous crime that had all of England reeling in the summer of 1860. In the early morning of June 29, someone crept into the nursery of Road Hill House, Samuel and Mary Kent’s grand home in the village of Road, and stole off with their 3-year-old son, Saville. Only hours after the alarm was raised by the nursemaid, the child was discovered, his throat deeply cut and his dead body tossed down the servants’ outdoor privy. It was, Summerscale says, “perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time.”
Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of the eight original officers of Scotland Yard’s detective force, honored among his colleagues as “the prince of detectives,” was sent down from London to this heavily industrialized region in the south of England to bring some professionalism to the local investigation. But this was no open-and-shut case — there was no obvious motive for the murder of a child, there were no witnesses at all, and critical clues were lost or compromised — and therein lies its real significance. With no quick and easy resolution to the mystery, Whicher was forced to dig into the private affairs of the Kent household, unearthing secrets and advancing speculations that, in Summerscale’s view, were profoundly threatening to English society’s notions of itself. The case became “a kind of myth,” she says, “a dark fable about the Victorian family and the dangers of detection.”
Once lodged in the collective imagination, the murder drew comment not only from the hyperventilating press and outraged guardians of public safety and morality, but from literary lights of the day. Dickens proposed his own theory to his friend Wilkie Collins, and both made pointed use of the case in later novels. (For the true lit-hist-myst buff, to reread “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” or “The Moonstone” directly after “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” is akin to having an epiphany.) Summerscale, formerly the literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, goes so far as to say that the real-life investigation “set the course of detective fiction.” Two years after the murder, her point was made by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose hugely popular novel “Lady Audley’s Secret” drew heavily on the particulars of the case to provide a blueprint for what came to be known as the sensation novel.
Taking her own literary cue, Summerscale smartly uses an energetic narrative voice and a suspenseful pace, among other novelistic devices, to make her factual material read with the urgency of a work of fiction. What she has constructed, specifically, is a traditional country-house mystery, more brutal than cozy, but presenting the same kind of intellectual puzzle as her fictional models and adorned, as such books once were, with wonderfully old-fashioned maps, diagrams, engravings, courtroom sketches and other illustrations. (Even the scholarly notes might be looked on as hidden clues, leading the reader to discover such gems as Richard D. Altick’s “Victorian Studies in Scarlet” and Thomas Boyle’s “Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead.”)
More important, Summerscale accomplishes what modern genre authors hardly bother to do anymore, which is to use a murder investigation as a portal to a wider world. When put in historical context, every aspect of this case tells us something about mid-Victorian society, from prevailing attitudes about women (“prone to insanity”), children (“full of savage whims and impulses,” according to one 19th-century physician) and servants (“outsiders who might be spies or seducers”) to the morality-based intellectual constructs that codified such views of human behavior.
But the spirit of scientific enlightenment was also flourishing in this industrialized period. People were already infatuated with police detectives (“a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest”) and morbidly curious about the advances in criminal psychology and forensic procedures. For a nation of armchair detectives, the prolonged and very public Scotland Yard investigation was like a teaching manual in the new forensic sciences. As Summerscale puts it, “The Road Hill case turned everyone detective.”
More good thinking is applied to the significance of Inspector Whicher’s failure to verify his strong suspicions about the killer’s identity and bring that person to trial. (It would take five years and a full confession to convict the murderer and vindicate Whicher, whose once lofty reputation was in shreds.) Like any novelist, Summerscale follows her storytelling instincts in making the detective the hero of her book. While her efforts to humanize his sketchy character are limited at best, she does far better at illustrating how he was fictionally transformed, both in the mysteries of his own day and in subsequent permutations of the genre.
More dramatic than Whicher’s personal fall from public grace was the disillusionment with Scotland Yard and its methods. As the police investigation dragged on, with more and more secrets in the Kent household being aired, even the most avid voyeur could see that criminal detection held hidden dangers. The mania that Wilkie Collins called “detective fever” suddenly shifted to “distaste for the working-class fellow who had meddled in middle-class affairs” and the fear that such troublemakers might eventually breach the sanctity of one’s own home and mess all over the drawing-room carpet, as W. H. Auden put it in his classic essay “The Guilty Vicarage.”
In life as in detective fiction, such fears are not unfounded, for as Summerscale points out, “the classic country-house murder is an assault on propriety, an aggressive exposure of base needs and desires.” Which is why the author’s startling final twist both vindicates her fallen hero and advances an “aggressive” attack on moral hypocrisy in his day and ours.
Marilyn Stasio writes the Crime column for the New York Times Book Review.