As a literary style, mystery fiction is one of the newer kids on the block, or should I say, the shelf. As a genre it really only started to appear in the nineteenth century, where drastic changes to daily life were able to bring news to nearly everyone almost as it happened. And as the fledgling industry of the newspaper discovered, the public was hungry for any story of mystery -- especially murder.
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In 1860, a murder occurred at a country home of a successful, middle-class family. Located in the remote county of Wiltshire, the Saville Kent family lived a life that most Victorians would envy -- they had a fine, large home, servants to tend to their needs, disposable income, and to the outside world, everything that spelled success. But on one morning, the nursemaid found the bed of one of the younger children empty and the child missing. After a frantic search, and when the local police were called in, the body of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent was found in a cesspit under the outhouse used by the servants. He had been stabbed before being dropped into the privy to suffocate.
At first, the suspicion of who the murderer was fell on the nursemaid, who was questioned but not arrested, and while there were plenty of rumours, no one could conceive that one of the members of the Kent family had murdered one of their own. The local police asked for assistance from the newly formed Metropolitan Police in London, and they sent one of their best, Jack Whicher.
Whicher had already proved his worth by solving several murders and thefts in London, and while he wasn't popular, he was very good at figuring out the truth of a case. When he arrived at the Kent's home, he started to question the family members, and created an unthinkable suggestion -- that it had been a family member that had murdered the child, and that it was one of the other children. To the Victorian mind, it was unimaginable that a child -- usually an object of extreme innocence and purity to the imagination of the time -- could have committed such an act of cruelty and depravity.
Naturally the press leapt on such a story with high glee, and they were busy publishing every conjecture and idea that they could, and so, dragging both the family and the newly created Metropolitan Police through the mud. Pressure was put on Jack Whicher to solve the case, and to do it quickly as it was starting to reveal some very unsavory secrets of middle-class life, and the more private life of everyday people. Under the surface of polite manners and financial success, the Kents were riddled with jealousy, madness, sexual tensions, and the simmering emotions of stepfamilies and children having to confront adult issues without any protection.
In the end, while several people were questioned, there wasn't enough evidence to bring about a full trial. Jack Whicher returned to London, convinced that it had been one of the children who was the murderer, but his superiors were thinking otherwise. Only five years later did a very surprising confession came about, and one that rocked English society. I won't reveal who it was here, but the story takes on an even more interesting turn of events, with quite a few surprises and outcomes for everyone involved.
Kate Summerscale uses surviving letters, newspaper accounts and police records to piece together what happened one summer's night. While her narrative does stray in spots, what she reveals is quite interesting. I had known something about the dynamics of a Victorian household, and how gender, clothing and privacy revealed the mental and social expectations of people's inner character -- or rather, what was wished to be the character. Along with that, there are details about the beginnings of a modern police force, and finally, the effects of the case on the literature of the time, and how those trends are still influencing mystery fiction of the modern world.
What I really enjoyed about this book -- beyond the mental challenges of unraveling the mystery of who killed Saville Kent and why -- were the links that showed how this case influenced the mystery writers of the time. Both Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens used elements of the crime to create their own novels and the use of detectives, best seen in the novels The Moonstone and Bleak House. Summerscale cleverly blends in how the novels have also helped to shape what is now known as the mystery genre of novels in fiction -- and more importantly, the detectives that populate them.
As well as the narrative, there are extensive footnotes, and two inserts of black and white photographs, as well as many black and white illustrations throughout the text.
All in all, this was a very satisfying read. Four stars overall.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
2008; Walker & Company, New York
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