Monday, April 6, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

23. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, by Kate Summerscale

If you have read Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, you have encountered, in the person of Sergeant Cuff, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. In other fiction of the period, you may well have found echoes of the murder case about which Ms. Summerscale writes.

In the early hours of June 29, 1860, in the country house of Road Hill, near Trowbridge, England, a three-year-old boy named Saville Kent was spirited from his crib and murdered, his body found the next day at the bottom of the privy. When, after two weeks, the local police were, as Sherlock Holmes would have said, "baffled", they called in Scotland Yard, which sent DI Whicher. All signs suggested that the murderer must have been someone resident in the house. Then, on July 20, Whicher convinced the local magistrates to issue a warrant for the arrest of Constance Kent, the child's half-sister. But after a hearing to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to charge her, Constance was released. On October 1, at the behest of a solicitor who headed a commission investigating the murder, the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was arrested, but the upshot was the same.

The public was fascinated by the case, and everyone fancied himself Whicher's rival in detection. Fingers pointed at the nursemaid, at the child's half-siblings, even at the child's father. Theories suggested adultery and madness. Newspapers alternately and variously supported Inspector Whicher's actions and attacked them. And it would not be until years later, with a confession, that the murder would be solved (though, even then, questions arose as to the reliability or complete truthfulness of that confession).

Why did this case arouse so much interest, so much public passion and debate and involvement? There were many reasons. The crime itself struck at the most private, protected place of an Englishman: his home. The investigation necessitated prying into a family's intimate secrets, and, worse, that prying was done into an upper-middle-class family by a man of the working class. Detectives were something new in England, and the English weren't quite sure they liked the idea.

Summerscale's great strength here is the way she interweaves the story of the murder with threads about English society in 1860. It's a fascinating story in itself, but is made far more nuanced by the way in which Summerscale relates it to the developments in England at large. I will say that I have seen at least one review of this book that complains that has "too much detail", and doesn't read sufficiently like a story. Hello? It's non-fiction, people! Frankly, I was rather impressed at how Summerscale was able to incorporate what was, in effect, a study of societal mores into the discussion of the murder case, and still make the book flow like a good novel without jettisoning scholarship.

(A note on notes: this book was extensively researched and, while endnotes are given for each chapter, Summerscale has also indicated "main sources" for groups of chapters. My one criticism of these notes is that, rather than having numbered endnotes, there are simply page references with the beginning of a sentence quoted. What's wrong with a superscript number and a corresponding endnote ((though a footnote would be preferable))? I do not understand why editors expect readers to be constantly flipping to the back of a book to see if there's a note or notes. I don't know if this is generally a choice of the author or of the editors, but I wish it would stop.)

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