The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
By Kate Summerscale
On a dark night in a country estate called Road Hill House a young boy, Saville Kent, is brutally murdered. Child of an unpopular government inspector, the suspect list for the gristly death is long, ranging from his nursemaid Elizabeth Gough and his father Samuel Kent to former servants and complete strangers. The local police don’t know what to do – violent murders aren’t part of their daily routine – so they summon a detective from London with experience investigating homicides. Scotland Yard sends one of their best men: Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher.
In Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, we are treated to more than a mere murder mystery. This book covers the facts of the case, but she also paints a broader picture of Victorian society as a whole, and the ramifications of Whicher’s investigations. The attitudes of the middle- and upper classes towards working-class men like Whicher hindered his investigation time and time again. Searches for evidence were half-hearted and skipped entirely in the house of Samuel Kent, because local constables didn’t want to disturb the peace of the family. Whicher bypasses this sensitivity and dives right into his investigation, rummaging through nightdresses and prying into the past of the Kent family. England is shocked. In 1860 this was absolutely inappropriate behavior. Detectives were a relatively new addition to the to the police and were considered barely above the dark underworld they worked in, for how could they know so much about criminals unless they were villains themselves? But even as society shook their heads and disapproved they clung to every word printed by newspapers as a “detective-mania” swept the country. Summerscale examines the role of detectives in fiction, and shows the many ways that Whicher’s work in the Road Hill House murder inspired the great writers of the era: Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and even American Dashiell Hammett.
The book is also an intriguing look back to the forensics and crime scene technology available in the days before DNA could easily prove guilt or innocence. A single piece of evidence could make or break a case, and it was far too easy to make a false accusation for every policeman could read the evidence differently. In fact, many amateur “armchair” detectives flooded Scotland Yard with suggestions in the case, especially when Whicher’s controversial conclusion is unable to stand in court because a critical piece of evidence is unable to be produced. A fascinating book about the birth of the detective and the tribulations of Mr. Whicher as he struggles with one of the most shocking crimes of his time; true-crime fans everywhere grab a chair and settle in for a good read.