The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

In this book’s review in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio dubbed this a True-Lit-Hist-Myst. It is the story of a true crime, committed in 1860, so it is also history, and is truly a mystery, because we cannot, at this remove, ever know whodunit for certain.

Crime stories pose puzzles for readers, along with solutions. That’s what can be comforting about them; order emerges from chaos. Novels (and true crime, too) can tell us more. They define a culture, comment on class and society, and ask their readers big questions about morality and human nature.

I first read this story in Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. The focus of this book was the role of women in Victorian England and how their status affected the causes and effects of the murder. It is a fascinating book; I recommend it for anyone interested in this subject.

Constance Kent came to the notice of Britain in the summer of 1860. The murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House shocked Britain. Dickens was enthralled by it, Wilkie Collins and others appropriated it, and the public couldn’t get enough of it. Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher attempted to solve the crime and suffered as a result.

The morning of Saturday, June 30, 1860, Saville Kent, aged three years and 10 months, was missing from his bed. Soon after he was found, stuffed down the servants’ outside toilet on the grounds of the house. His throat had been cut.

The murder of a child was appalling enough, but the public was also frightened by the possibilities. It had been an inside job. How could one protect one’s home when a murderer lurked within rather than without. Summerscale is very good on the attitudes of the time. An Englishman’s home was, indeed, very much his castle. Servants could be spies or worse.

Detectives were all the rage. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin began the public’s fascination with the rational detection of crime. Jack Whicher was one of the eight original Scotland Yard detectives. Whicher was 45 and had a string of successes behind him. Two years before Road Hill House, he had apprehended a thief who had made off with a Leonardo da Vinci. He had also aided the hunt for some revolutionaries who had attempted the assassination of Napoleon III in Paris. Dickens (whose character of Bucket in Bleak House was broadly based on Whicher’s friend and boss Charley Field) knew Whicher and had eulogized the new breed of detective as “models of modernity” in several magazine articles and stories.

There was resentment on the art of local police to the interference of Whicher, a London man. They had already formed the view that the killers had probably been Saville’s own father and nursemaid. (Kent had married the children’s governess after his first wife went mad and died.) Whicher, however, soon formed a different conclusion, one based on psychology and instinct. For him, the prime suspect was Saville’s half-sister Constance.

Constance was arrested and brought to court. Her defense lawyer made a mockery of Whicher’s inquiries and guesses, while the local constabulary campaigned to discredit the Londoner. Public opinion was on Constance’s side. Even Dickens became disillusioned with detectives. What was needed, it was decided, was a kind of detective who was “not so much a scientist as a machine”.

All the bad publication halted Whicher’s career. But in 1865, a year after his retirement, Constance walked into Bow Street magistrates’ court and confessed to the crime. She had spent the past few years in an Anglo-Catholic convent and was accompanied to the police by the Reverend Wagner and Katharine Gream, the Lady Superior of the convent. In short time, she was tried and convicted of the murder of her half-brother.

The problem for the reader is that we do not know how anyone feels or thinks about the events. We cannot know the inner workings of anyone’s mind. This is where novels come into their own: they allow us to move beyond surface appearances towards a deeper understanding of motivation and psychology. The organizing of chaos is also what novels do well. Indeed, they do it so much better than real life, which is why we read them. What the book does well, however, is to look at notions of class, criminality, human nature and religion in an age of change.

Constance was saved from execution by Queen Victoria, but served 20 years for the crime, then disappeared. Newspapers still felt that the details of her confession didn’t add up. Whicher retired a broken man, but even after the culprit was brought to justice there were still questions that have never been answered.

Stasio recommends that the true lit-hist-myst buff move on to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Moonstone, or Lady Audley’s Secret. I would plan to follow this suggestion, as well as dipping into The Water Doctor’s Daughters by Pauline Conolly. in Victorian Murderesses and Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick. These are about two other murders Hartman discusses in Victorian Murderesses.


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