Title: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House
Author: Kate Summerscale
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing [original edition 2008, this edition 2009]
Length: 372 pages
This non-fiction book lays out the story of four year old Francis Saville Kent, son of a prominent Inspector of Factories Samuel Kent, who one morning in 1860 was found to be missing from his bed. His mutilated body was discovered later that day in the grounds of the house and it was established early on that the murderer could only have been someone, family or servant, from within the household. When local police failed to make headway in identifying the culprit Inspector Whicher, a member of England’s first-ever plain clothes detective squad, was sent from London to investigate.
Summerscale has pieced together not only the immediate events surrounding the murder but also the pasts of all the main players including the Kent family and Inspector Whicher. If we need it, the story revealed here provides further evidence that phrases become clichéd because they are true and Mark Twain’s observation that truth is stranger than fiction is borne out. The Road Hill murder seems to have involved more odd characters, false accusations and misinterpreted evidence than ever Conan Doyle or Christie would have dared squeeze into a single story.
It’s obvious that a load of research, mostly from solid primary sources such as court transcripts and Whicher’s detailed reports as well as contemporary newspaper reports, has gone into this book. For me the first chapter, although probably necessary, was the least engaging as it was a bit of a jumble of people’s names and their precise locations at particular points in the timeline immediately before and after the boy’s death. However after this chapter I found the book more to my taste as there was some in depth analysis of the facts that Summerscale had gleaned from all that research.
For me anyway this book was about much more than the attempt to uncover a murderer. There’s a a fascinating description of the development of the investigative techniques (or lack thereof) used in the fledgling field of professional detection. Then there’s the always maddening contemporary explanations for the actions of the women in the case (usually involving insanity brought on by their menstrual cycles of course). While supposedly learned men’s perceptions of my gender’s inferiority is not news to me the insight into the way these kind of events were tried, even then, in the court of public opinion was quite unexpected and totally gripping. I have a feeling that the families involved in modern-day cases such as the death of Azaria Chamberlain (an Australian case from 1980) and the more recent disappearance of Madelaine McCann would feel some empathy for what the Kents and the members of their household went through. And although many things have changed since 1860 (I doubt many modern police enquiries would falter due to an embarrassment about discussing women’s under garments for example) it would appear the willingness of the general public to give freely of their ill-informed guesswork with respect to whodunnit and why is a constant.
I was happily reminded of something reading this book: I really do enjoy this kind of history. I’ve never been that interested in the ‘major events’ (kings, presidents and wars) but this kind of history, based on teasing-out information from a plethora of sources to develop a picture of how ‘average’ people might have responded to their world, does ignite my imagination and I had forgotten just how much. I studied the subject for several years at University and spent my first few working years as an archivist, but over time became a bit bored by it all and deliberately haven’t read a heck of a lot of history in the past 10 years or so. The book is reminiscent of one of my favourite history texts, Natalie Zemon-Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre (a 16th century case of identity theft in France), and I am quite chuffed to have had my interest in this kind of reading re-kindled.
I heartily recommend this book both to crime fiction fans who are interested in the real-world events that influenced some early works in the genre and also to those with a fondness for well written, superbly researched history of the ‘little’ people.
My rating 4.5/5
The book has its own website and there’s a load of other information about the book online including articles in which Maxine at Petrona observed how this book has generated much discussion among crime fiction devotees about the age-old question of why we like reading this genre and Norm at Crime Scraps even has a personal connection to the Whicher story