Later made into a popular British miniseries of the same name, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Bloomsbury, 2009) delivers an intensely thorough analysis of a real 1860 murder case that had a profound impact in Britain. On the morning of 30 June 1860, it was discovered that three-year-old Francis Saville Kent, the son of Samuel Kent, an inspector of factories for the Home Office, disappeared from his family’s home, Road Hill House. The young boy’s body was later found in the vault of a privy-house on the grounds of Road Hill House; he had knife wounds on his body and hands, and his throat was slashed incredibly deep. Given the high profile of the Kent Family, Scotland Yard sent Detective Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, already possessing a reputation for solving difficult crimes, to investigate.
Although the local police superintendent believed that nursemaid Elizabeth Gough, in whose room the little boy slept and who had charge of him, was the perpetrator of this crime, Whicher had other theories upon his arrival at Road Hill House. Whicher swiftly turned his attention to Constance Kent, the older half-sister of the young Saville Kent born from their father’s first marriage. While Constance faced trail for her brother’s murder, the case was later dropped due to lack of evidence. Throughout the ordeal the press had strongly supported Constance and vehemently condemned for daring to accuse a well-bred young woman of such a heinous crime. Whicher returned to London with the case unsolved and his reputation greatly damaged. The public was equally horrified that a detective would open for view the intimacies of a respectable Victorian home, an invasion of privacy so severe that even under the circumstances was difficult to comprehend.
However, the history of the case does not end here and nor does Summerscale’s study. Indeed, while the first portion of the text lays out the crime and explores the investigation of Whicher and the trial of Constance Kent, the remainder chronicles the 1865 confession of the boy’s killer, the reopening of the case, and subsequent trial which followed. Minutely researched, Summerscale leaves no detail out of her work, following each of the key players in the case through the drama which unfolded and followed them for decades, illuminating the lives of each. Indeed, this thoroughness is a hallmark of Summerscale’s work and adds a further degree of interest to an already fascinating story.
Arguably the most interesting aspect of Summerscale’s work is her ability to not only tell the story of a complex crime and its aftermath, but how she threads the theme of this case’s impact on British literature throughout. Specifically, how the case, and the figure of the detective as embodied by Whicher, gave birth to the ‘Great House Mystery’ novels which became popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century. These included Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, both of which drew heavily on the case and characters involved for their inspiration.
Given the prominence of the crime, Summerscale has a rich cache of sources to draw from in her retelling of events, from the records of the case right down to the newspaper accounts of the aftermath. Just as she does in future works (at least one of which has been reviewed by TCI), the author uses the historical record to utmost advantage, it is clear that each and every source has been mined for the most useful information in advancing her excellent analysis of the 1860 murder at Road Hill House and the equally important events which unfolded years afterward. Although a work of non-fiction, Summerscale has drawn from the historical record in such a way that allows the book to often read as a crime novel, an intentional effort which is well executed.
Although written about by a number of other historians over the 150 years between the murder and Summerscale’s book, her work has breathed new life into the crime and provided an entirely new perspective on the wider impact that case had on British culture, especially in the field of literature. A pleasure to read this work would appeal and be enjoyed by popular crime readers and more seasons academics alike.
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About the Writer:
Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.