Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Original Country House Murder: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

On the morning of June 30, 1860, the residents of the Kent household woke to discover that 3-year-old Saville Kent had gone missing from his bed. After a feverish search of the ground, the little boy's body was discovered, smothered, stabbed, nearly decapitated, and stuffed down the privy in the backyard.

After a largely botched investigation by local law enforcement, a new kind of police officer was dispatched from Scotland Yard, a detective by the name of Jonathan Whicher. Though detectives are now synonymous with the famed agency, the division had only been created in 1842, and Whicher was one of only eight detectives there. In the years leading up to what would be known as the Road House Murder, Whicher had made a name for himself solving spectacular crimes -- the theft of a priceless da Vinci painting, a rash of bank robberies, a jewel heist. He was the obvious choice for a murder so grisly and high profile that it would later inspire works by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

Unfortunately for Whicher, the investigation would also bring about his downfall. After piecing together the little evidence that remained, Whicher announced his suspect, a member of the Kent family. By this time, the press and the public had already decided who they thought to be the guilty parties, and Whicher's reports laid out a very different scenario. By the end of 1860, charges against Whicher's suspect had been dropped, Whicher was vilified, and the murder remained unsolved -- and would continue to be until several years later.

Summerscale does an impressive job of piecing together newspaper reports and archival materials to create an account that reads with as much suspense and horror as a Victorian detective novel. She draws a full and likely portrait of the Kent family and its odd, reclusive dynamics, and also conveys the intrigue that surrounded the new figure of the Victorian-era detective and the public's awe and enthusiasm for such individuals.

However, there's one problem with the book, and perhaps one that would be insurmountable to any responsible writer of historic true crime. The characteristics that made Jonathan Whicher a good detective - elusiveness, inscrutability - make him a frustrating subject for a book. While snippets from letters and reports show Whicher to be a wry, inquisitive, and decent sort, Summerscale never really gets a handle on the central figure of her book. The Road House Murder may have been solved, but the detective who solved it remains as much a mystery as ever.

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