Monday, May 02, 2011

Off Topic---1860 England: A Child's Murder and The Suspicions of Detective Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, Kate Summerscale, Walker Publishing, 360 pp., maps, illustrations, index, bibliography, list of characters, 2008, $24.95.

A thorough portrait of the gruesome murder of three year old Saville Kent and England's very first detective force. In 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent was found murdered and his body left in the in the outhouse of his father's small manor. Local police wander thourgh the manor speculating on how the murder may have occurred. How was the child removed from his bed on the second floor of the manor house? What type of knife stabbed him in his chest and then slit his throat? Has the unthinkable occurred? Has an adult, middle class, family member brutally killed a child?

The village generates rumours. Was the nursemaid was sleeping with the father? Did a local father decided it was time to pay back Samuel Kent, the father, for his enforcement of child labor laws that kept child workers' incomes out of the pockets of their parents? Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jack Whicher is sent to the scene two weeks later. He quickly suspects that someone in the Kent family killed the child.

Whicher's investigation leads to Constance Kent, Saville's teenage half-sister. With circumstancial evidence and no confession, Wicher takes the case to the grand jury who finds Constance innocent. The detective is abused by the press and magistrates. How bold, arrogant and diabolical had Whicher become? Previously his record of investigations and convictions was superlative. What had caused him to imagine a young adult female could have physically performed the heinous act? His career slides away. Then five years later, the killer divulges an account of the crime; a sensational trial follows.

Summerscale's work is a splendid account of a true crime set in its historical context. London's new detective force, the tabloid press, child labor laws, the birth of detective fiction, confessions made to priests, and women's prison are covered with illustrative anecdotes and details. Even vocabulary is introduced in a fascinating manner. What was the first use of the word detective? The first use of the word clue?

The Road Hill murder case would become a model the traditional country-house murder mystery genre: part how-did-it-happen puzzle, part dysfunctional family generational saga, part social and psychological pathology. Summerscale places the murder investigation into a legal, law enforcement, societal and Victorian context. Yes, even with a twist at the end and a tip of the hat to authors Edgar Allan Poe,Charles Dickens, Wilke Collins and O. Henry.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, is a true crime story that pays close attention to social and literary history. Kate Summerscale's research is not an intrusive laundry list of trivia but deeply woven into the story of two marriages, a first wife's alleged insanity, five crib deaths, a seductive nurse maid, and the children of two marriages all under the same roof of an English manor house.

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