I’m currently doing research which means I bring stacks of books home from the library and then try to figure out which ones I actually need to read. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective was probably not one of them, but unlike some of the more modern crime books sitting on my desk at the moment, it was one I knew I could read without having nightmares afterwards.
Kate Summerscale tells the story of a murder in 1860 that might easily have inspired one of Agatha Christie’s country manor murder mysteries. In fact, Summerscale’s presentation is designed to invoke just such a comparison, and the author herself points out the many connections between this real-life mystery and contemporary literature written by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, and others.
Mr. Whicher, the detective of the title, was one of the first detectives ever, part of the eight-man department opened at Scotland Yard in 1842. By the time of the murder in 1860, Whicher has a well-earned reputation for getting his man.
The first section of the book, which is written like a classic English whodunit, covers the day leading up to and including the murder itself. A three-year-old boy disappears in the middle of the night and his body is found with his throat cut. A murder apparently without motive leads to suspicions about everyone in the household from the lowly nursemaid to the tyrannical father. Two weeks of stumbling around bring the local police no closer to the answer and in desperation they call in Scotland yard.
The book begins to stray from the classical fictional mystery format when we are introduced to Detective Jonathan Whicher. We follow him as he looks far and wide for information regarding the case. He is certain before long that he knows who killed the boy and when the arrest is made, the villagers go wild. The only thing more shocking to the Victorians than the violent death of a child is the thought that an adolescent might be responsible.
Due to bad handling of both the witnesses and the leads during the inquest, the case is not brought to trial and Whicher returns to London in defeat. He goes on with his life, and the investigations around the Road Hill murder go on without him. Public views sway with the wind, and solutions to the mystery are sent to Scotland Yard by citizens from all over the country. As in any good mystery where there is insufficient evidence to nail the culprit, the murderer is caught only because she confesses.
While Whicher is vindicated, the evidence still doesn’t quite add up. Summerscale points out the oddities, which were glossed over at the time, and, using documents that were discovered in the last century, proposes her own solution with credibility.
I was less enthusiastic about this book by the time I reached the end. The familiar structure of the beginning had me thinking in terms of fiction instead of reality. Real life is full of dead and loose ends, and even with the author’s theories to wrap up what she can, the book ends with questions unanswered, questions that will never be answered. And the title is overly dramatic. The story is far from shocking to a modern reader; our media inundate us with far too many horrors for this one to be of any surprise.
All in all, it’s a good book. It gives a taste of English life in the mid-1800s that includes the tension between the classes and vivid details of daily life. The exploration of public opinion and its effects on the case show that in many ways people haven’t changed. In 1860, everyone had a theory who killed Saville Kent and facts didn’t enter into it. The majority of the solutions were designed to make the unpopular responsible for the death. For anyone familiar with the works referred to, there is the added interest of seeing how the first mystery novels were shaped by the times in general and this case and this detective in particular.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale, Walker & Company, 2008.