The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House
by Kate Summerscale
The dramatic story of the real-life murder that inspired the birth of modern detective fiction.
In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land.
At the time, the detective was a relatively new invention; there were only eight detectives in all of England and rarely were they called out of London, but this crime was so shocking, as Kate Summerscale relates in her scintillating new book, that Scotland Yard sent its best man to investigate, Inspector Jonathan Whicher.
Whicher quickly believed the unbelievable—that someone within the family was responsible for the murder of young Saville Kent. Without sufficient evidence or a confession, though, his case was circumstantial and he returned to London a broken man. Though he would be vindicated five years later, the real legacy of Jonathan Whicher lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, knowing, and all-seeing detective that we know and love today…from the cryptic Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a provocative work of nonfiction that reads like a Victorian thriller, and in it Kate Summerscale has fashioned a brilliant, multilayered narrative that is as cleverly constructed as it is beautifully written.
TW: There will be discussion of a child’s murder in this review
The Victorian era saw the birth of detective fiction, with Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone believed to be the first detective novel, and Detective Inspector Jack Whicher seems to have been an inspiration behind many of the Victorian era’s fictional detectives.
In 1860 Whicher was called to investigate the most famous murder case of his career, called away from London to the village of Road, Wiltshire (now Rode, Somerset) where three year old Saville Kent had been found murdered. Both Saville’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, and his mother, Mary Kent, had noticed Saville wasn’t in his bed some time before the household woke up, but both women assumed Saville was with the other and so no one began to search for him until around four hours after it was believed he went missing.
Saville’s body was later found stashed down the outdoor privy, wrapped in his blanket. His throat had been cut and he had been stabbed in the chest in a brutal attack.
Not only was Saville’s death a blow to the Kent family and the village of Road, a shocking display of meaningless violence against someone unable to defend himself, but it was clear from the lack of evidence that anyone had broken in that the murderer was someone in the house. Saville had either been murdered by a member of staff, or a member of his own family.
Kate Summerscale brings Whicher’s investigation into the murder to life in her book, exploring how Saville’s murder brought the Kent family’s suspicious history into the light. This was a family somewhat divided, the current Mrs. Kent being the governess to the first Mrs. Kent’s children before she was declared insane and eventually died, and it seemed that Samuel Kent, the family patriarch, favoured the children of his new marriage over the children of his first.
This middle class family became a source of gossip and speculation, and the public were fascinated with them and disgusted by them in equal measure. Whicher, as an outsider from London, faced the same treatment from the public and the press, sometimes portrayed as a hero set to find justice for Saville and sometimes portrayed as a money-grabber who wasn’t afraid to question anyone if it meant he got his reward. That Whicher believed everyone should be questioned, including all of Samuel Kent’s children, would seem only natural to us now, but in the 19th century it was considered shocking that Whicher might want to interrogate some nice, middle class ladies.
For the most part I found this book really interesting. I wanted to know who had committed the crime, and why, and I found Summerscale’s discussion of how Whicher influenced detective fiction fascinating. So many stories I’m familiar with, including The Moonstone which is one of my favourite classics, were inspired by the murder at Road Hill House. It was a murder that captured the public’s imagination because of the horror at its core.
That being said, this book easily could have been shorter. Summerscale has clearly put a lot of research into this book and it shows – there’s so much in here about the members of the Kent family and Whicher himself, as well as the history of investigation – but at times I think there was too much information, or perhaps that the information wasn’t in the right place. One moment we would be continuing with the murder case, and I was most interested in finding out who had committed the crime, and the next there would be several dense paragraphs stuffed with quotes from various detective novels or facts about other cases Whicher had solved.
If I weren’t so keen to get to the bottom of the mystery I would have found all of that so much more interesting, but because this book was set up as a non-fiction whodunnit I got quite frustrated with the amount of backstory I was being given when I wanted to know how the murder investigation itself was progressing. If the book had been set up as more of a whydunnit, if Summerscale had revealed the ins and outs of the murder and then used the rest of her knowledge to explain how the murder impacted social history and the detective novel and why the murderer did what they did, I think I would have been more satisfied with the way it was written.
All that aside, I would recommend this book – especially if you’re interested in criminal history or you’re into your Victorian detective fiction. I think fans of true crime would find The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher fascinating, if you’re willing to be patient before the murderer is ultimately revealed.
As for me, I’ll be thinking about poor Saville Kent for a while.