The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

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Category: True Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: True crime told as a gripping story. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Puublishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747596486

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I love a bit of true crime myself, and when it is cloaked in a swirling Victorian cape I like it still more - I can conceal my prurience beneath the respectability of education. So I was well disposed to The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher before I opened it. When I started to read, though, I was gripped.

On the night of 29th June 1860 a three year old boy, Saville Kent, had his throat slashed and his body stuffed into a privy in the grounds of Road Hill House, Wiltshire. The nature of the crime meant that suspicion immediately fell on the occupants of the house – the child's father, Samuel Kent, a respectable factory inspector; his second wife, Mary, who was pregnant at the time; their children; the children of his first marriage and the three live-in servants. Despite its outward appearance of prosperity and respectability, it was a household rank with sex, intrigue, infidelity, jealousy and madness. As each secret layer was peeled away the public imagination became ever more inflamed, making this crime one of the cause celebres of the nineteenth century.

The case was initially handled – or mishandled – by an inept local police force. It was not until some ten days later that a detective from Scotland Yard was summoned. The detective division of the Metropolitan police had only been in existence for eighteen years, and was regarded with both suspicion and awe. The detective they sent, Mr Whicher, was something of a hero in the public's eyes, a man who had caught a number of prominent murderers and thieves using intuition, an excellent memory and the beginnings of forensic science. However, Wincher's findings at Road Hill House would horrify the public and prove catastrophic for his future.

The joy of this book is that Kate Summerscale does not merely tell the story of a murder, tragic though it was. She places the crime in its social and cultural setting in an erudite and entertaining way. The author guides the reader through the period, illuminating attitudes to children, to crime, to prisons and to class as she attempts to untangle the mystery. For instance, Mr Whicher is introduced with a preamble outlining the history of the Metropolitan police and the public reaction to the introduction of a plain clothes police force – they were regarded as really rather un-British, as they skulked around the capital spying on the public. One only has to read any discussion about CCTV to gauge reactions. Throughout the book, Summerscale manages skilfully to provide a flavour of the mood of the time.

Summerscale writes particularly well about literature. The Road Hill House murder has a major impact upon contemporary novels, in particular Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, the founding fable of detective fiction, a story about a crime in a country house in which the sins and secrets of the household have a direct bearing on the outcome. Dickens too had strong opinions about the real case and plundered it to use in his books. The long influence of the key figures in the murder is traced down through 1860s crime novels, to Henry James, Sherlock Holmes and even Agatha Christie, the grand dame of the country house murder.

The author (and reader) delights in tangents - for instance, on linguistics. Summerscale notes that a new vocabulary emerged to capture detective methods. 'Hunch' was first used in 1849 to describe a push towards a solution, 'lead' when used to mean a clue appeared in the 1850s, 'secretive' first appeared in 1853. Such digressions make for a charming read.

For me, what is particularly thrilling about this case is that it all took place about five miles from where I live. So when the author writes about a prosperous Trowbridge, and the new houses magistrates built on the aspirant Hilperton Road, I know the rather shabby and run down town as it is today. I have even been tempted to hop into my car and to try to find the house which is the scene of the murder – it is still there, even if the name has been changed. I have managed to restrain myself from this unsavoury crime tourism, so far.

However, even if you do not live around the corner, this book is fascinating. It is true crime meets historical biography meets social history with a dash of literary analysis thrown in. It is thoroughly researched, beautifully described and written with an underlying compassion and humanity that is a delight. Altogether, a very satisfying read.

For more true crime we can recommend Dorset Murders and Bristol Murders both by Nicola Sly.

Booklists.jpg The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2009.

Booklists.jpg The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale is in the Independent Booksellers' Prize 2009.

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