The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

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Overview

The dramatic story of the real-life murder that inspired the birth of modern detective fiction.

In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land.

At the time, the detective was a relatively new invention; there ...

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In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with ... detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land. At the time, the detective was a relatively new invention; there were only eight detectives in all of England and rarely were they called out of London, but this crime was so shocking that Scotland Yard sent its best man to investigate, Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Whicher quickly believed the unbelievable-that someone within the family was responsible for the murder of young Saville Kent. Without sufficient evidence or a confession, though, his case was circumstantial and he returned to London a broken man. Though he would be vindicated five years later, the real legacy of Jonathan Whicher lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, knowing, and all-seeing detective that we know and love today: from the cryptic Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a provocative work of nonfiction that reads like a Victorian thriller, and in it author Kate Summerscale has fashioned a brilliant, multilayered narrative that is as cleverly constructed as it is beautifully written. Read more Show Less

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

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Overview

The dramatic story of the real-life murder that inspired the birth of modern detective fiction.

In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land.

At the time, the detective was a relatively new invention; there were only eight detectives in all of England and rarely were they called out of London, but this crime was so shocking, as Kate Summerscale relates in her scintillating new book, that Scotland Yard sent its best man to investigate, Inspector Jonathan Whicher.

Whicher quickly believed the unbelievable—that someone within the family was responsible for the murder of young Saville Kent. Without sufficient evidence or a confession, though, his case was circumstantial and he returned to London a broken man. Though he would be vindicated five years later, the real legacy of Jonathan Whicher lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, knowing, and all-seeing detective that we know and love today…from the cryptic Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a provocative work of nonfiction that reads like a Victorian thriller, and in it Kate Summerscale has fashioned a brilliant, multilayered narrative that is as cleverly constructed as it is beautifully written.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Simon Vance does a fine job reading this unusually detailed and thoughtful true crime investigation into a notorious child murder case in 1860 London. At the time, there were only eight detectives working in England. Scotland Yard’s top man was Insp. Jonathan Whicher, and he headed the investigation. Intertwined with the tale of detection in its infancy is a fascinating examination of the role played by this case and its inspector in the creation of the detective novel genre by the likes of Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Occasionally, the large number of characters that listeners must sort through can become confusing. HighBridge helpfully provides a printed who’s who inside the CD box. Vance’s perfect diction and agile acting skills are always a pleasure for listeners, and Summerscale’s achievement is a must for anyone who loves detective stories, but this audio requires exceptional concentration. A Walker hardcover (Reviews, Nov. 11, 2007). (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

An English country house, a ghastly child murder, family secrets, a brilliant detective-all the elements of a Victorian crime novel are here in this true account of a celebrated murder in 1860. On June 29, three-year-old Saville Kent was found with his throat slashed in the servant's privy at Road Hill House. An incompetent police investigation proved fruitless, so the magistrate called in London detective James Whicher. Detectives, who investigated crimes across different police districts, were viewed with both awe and suspicion; their investigations often threatened the sacred privacy of the home. Whicher was certain that a member of the family had murdered the child, but a flat denial and the outrage of the community sent him back to London in disgrace. Later developments proved him right, but Whicher's real claim to fame was as the template for fictional detectives, particularly Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone . Summerscale organizes the book like a period novel, with a denouement that suggests that full justice was never done. Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City ) fans will be enthralled. For public and academic libraries.-Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L.

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Summerscale's second work of nonfiction, following The Queen of Whale Cay(1997), is at once a riveting true-crime tale, a fascinating history of the origins of detective fiction, and sharp social commentary on Victorian sensibilities. Audie Award winner Simon Vance's (The Spanish Game) sublime narration transforms listeners into armchair detectives as though they're standing alongside incomparable Scotland Yard detective-inspector Jonathan Whicher as he makes his inquiries. Essential for crime and mystery collections. [Audio clip available through www.highbridgeaudio.com; the Walker hc was recommended "for public and academic libraries," LJ2/1/08.-Ed.]
—Beth Farrell

Kirkus Reviews
Painstaking but never boring recreation of a sensational 1860 murder brings to shivering life the age of the Victorian detective. The Road Hill case served as fodder for the emerging detective genre taken up with relish by such authors as Dickens, Poe and Wilkie Collins. It perplexed detectives at the time and was resolved five years after the deed-and then only partially and unsatisfactorily, avers British journalist and biographer Summerscale (The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of ‘Joe' Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water, 1997, etc.). She models this engaging true-crime tale on the traditional country-house murder mystery, packed with secretive family members moving about with hidden motives in a commodious old manor house. On June 30, 1860, in the Wiltshire village of Road, three-year-old Saville Kent was removed in the dead of night from his cot in the room he shared with his nursemaid, suffocated, stabbed and dumped in the privy outside the kitchen. In addition to his parents, Samuel and Mary Kent, the inhabitants of Road Hill House included numerous servants and Samuel's four children from his previous marriage, each harboring various grievances since their mother's untimely death. After the local constable made a mess of the investigation, authorities called in Scotland Yard's "prince of detectives," Jonathan Whicher, then at the height of his career at age 45. The author dispassionately presents highlights from the record of Whicher's interviews with servants and family members, allowing readers to fill in the blanks much as the detective had to do. On largely circumstantial evidence, he arrested Samuel's 16-year-old daughter Constance, but she was soon released, and thepress ridiculed Whicher for accusing an innocent girl. In 1865, however, she confessed to the crime and after a sensational trial served a 20-year prison sentence. Summerscale pursues the story over decades, enriching the account with explanations of the then-new detective terminology and methods and suggesting a convincing motive for Constance's out-of-the-blue confession. A bang-up sleuthing adventure.
BookPage

"A bang-up sleuthing adventure."
Kirkus Reviews
From the Publisher

“Transforms listeners into armchair detectives. . . . Essential for crime and mystery collections.”
Library Journal [starred review]
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802715357
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 4/15/2008
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.72 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author


KATE SUMMERSCALE is the former literary editor for the Daily Telegraph and author of The Queen of Whale Cay, which won the Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography award. Summerscale lives in London.

SIMON VANCE is a prolific and popular audiobook narrator and actor with several hundred audiobooks to his credit. An Audie® Award-winner, Vance was recently named "The Voice of Choice" by Booklist magazine.

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Read an Excerpt

From The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher:

The Victorians made a romance of detection. In a newly uncertain world, a detective seemed to offer science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes—the vestiges of the beast in man—into intellectual puzzles. He was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. Yet the Victorians also made a fetish of privacy, and many felt that the investigation at Road Hill amounted to a violation of the middle-class home. Mr Whicher exposed the corruptions within the household: sexual transgression, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing. The scene he uncovered aroused fear (and excitement) at the thought of what might be hiding behind the closed doors of other respectable houses. His conclusions helped to create an era of voyeurism and suspicion, in which the detective was a shadowy figure, a demon as well as a demigod.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 66 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(10)

4 Star

(20)

3 Star

(16)

2 Star

(11)

1 Star

(9)

Your Rating:

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 14, 2011

    Very interesting!

    I found this book to be very informative. Not only did I learn about this horrible crime, but I learned a great deal about the development of the detective role from its origin to how we know it today. It helped to shed some light on the difficulties investigators faced when attempting to solve crimes at this time in history. Definately worth the read!

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2009

    I Wanted To Like This Book....I Really Did

    Who is Mr. Whicher and what does he have suspicions about? How many out there have ever heard of him? No one? Now how many have heard of Sherlock Holmes? Everyone? Well, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would not have been inspired to write about old Sherlock if not for Mr. Whicher.

    Mr. Whicher was a real person living in England in the mid-1800s. In fact, every word of Summerscale's thick book is true. The main thrust of the book is about a horrible crime that occured in an English country house. In 1860, a boy of toddler age was found murdered on the grounds. To make matters worse for the grieving family, suspicion fell on some of the inhabitants of the house, including the nursemaid and the owner's daughter.

    To help local law enforcement, Scotland Yard sends its best detective, Mr. Whicher. After just a few weeks, he was sure of who had committed the murder, but could not attain the evidence needed to put the person in jail. In fact, he outraged people in the surrounding land with his, what they deemed, invasion of privacy.

    First, I want to say that Summerscale should be applauded for her, obviously, very thorough research of this horrifying murder. The book reads like a novel, which is very hard to do when one is writing a work of nonfiction. When she sticks with the murder investigation, her book is riveting. However, she tries to take on too much when she ventures off into discussing other cases Whicher is investigating and stories about other members of the Kent family. I do not really want to read five pages about William Kent's obsession with coral at 1:30 AM.

    I wanted to like this book....I really, really did. In fact, I read late into the night until my eyes closed. Then I realized that my eyes were not closing because I was tired. They were closing because I was bored.

    MY RATING - 3 (for effort) and 2 (for keeping interest)

    To see my rating scale and to read more reviews, please check out my blog:
    http://www.1776books.blogspot.com

    6 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not as intriguing as I had hoped.

    I really wanted to get lost in this book. I was a touch bored. Overall, the story telling gets a bit convoluted, making things difficult to follow. Being a huge fan of true crime and good old fashioned detective fiction, I was expecting to be riveted to every last word. Sadly, I had to force myself to finish.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2011

    Great book

    It was hard to put down. Well written and researched.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2009

    A wonderful look at the world of the detective

    You may know the outcome of the case but Ms. Summerscale gives you more than a simple who dunnit.
    She tells the story of the birth of the British detective and the impact of this case on all authors from then until now.
    It is a wonderful read and for someone who does not have all the information about the real story, it is a heck of a mystery.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2008

    A reviewer

    Kate Summerscale has written a remarkable book, not only recreating in absorbing detail a shocking Victorian murder that reverberated across all of England, but chronicling how her main protagonist--Inspector Jonathan Whicher--became the model for all the great detectives in fiction. Though it's all true, she has written the book in the form of a classic Victorian crime novel, taking us straight back almost 150 years.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2008

    much too long and very disappointing

    I really did not enjoy this book, I was so looking forward to reading it after reading all the reviews praising it. I found myself losing interest and merely skipped thru at the end. I think it needed to be edited and some explanations eliminated.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Boring and dry

    Great material rendered dry as a textbook. This was touted as reading like a Victorian thriller and if so it would have been great. Unfortunately it has no character development and is simply a boring recitation of the facts of a horrific crime and the motives behind it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2012

    Not very good

    The only reason I stuck through this book was to see who was the real killer and to see how it played out. But I must confess, I skipped many a pages cuz it was just boring to me. I usually only have time to read a couple of chapters before I go to bed each night. This book took forever for me to finish because I just was never inspired to pick it up.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    Sorry I bought it.

    I think this was the least interesting book I'vr read in years. The dust cover made me think it would be on the order of a Sherlock Holmes novel. Terribly disapointed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 13, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended for British History/Mystery Lovers.

    Most satisfying when read as a carefully researched history of English detection both real and fictional using the case at hand as an exemplar of growth and procedural change in investigating crimes. The mystery at hand, the violent death of a three-year-old child in what appears to be a comfortable, respectable household, is an exemplar, and those who start to read this expecting a routine British countryside mystery may be disappointed. The history, for this reader, is every bit as interesting as the mystery. The copious end notes round out a truly enjoyable trip through a bygone era pointing the way to where and why detection on both sides of the Atlantic has become what it is today.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2012

    Mystery

    Youll only like this if your a bloody, muder, mystery
    And detectives

    I totally recomend it
    And its a lend me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

















































































































































































































































































    GOOD BOOK SO FAR

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2011

    Nice Book

    Very well done book for those times when one wants something worth thinking about.

    For example, She had not said her prayers for a year before the murder, ...

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 13, 2010

    Good but not gripping

    This real life Victorian murder mystery was good but did not grip me. I think perhaps this is becuase the family involved were not attractive. Nor was the detective who suspected the truth.

    I might have liked it better if I had been a murder mystery fan.

    It did however give some interesting insights into the Victorian era.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2013

    This book was hard for me to read, but only because of the horri

    This book was hard for me to read, but only because of the horrific subject matter. It was well written and well researched, albiet a bit slow at points. I would recommend this book to someone who does not have sensitivity to true crime involving children.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    Very enjoyable..

    Even if a tad dry at times. The gripping subject matter made up for it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2012

    Loved it!!

    Excellent account of this horrific tragedy- my heart broke for that poor little boy!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2012

    Interesting and well written

    This is a well researched and entertaining read. It moved a little slowly in places, but I enjoyed the author's use of primary sources.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2012

    Why?

    Why do readers tell the whole story instead of a short review? You ruin it for others that WANT to read it, gee thanks for nothing!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2012

    recommended

    A good read but not nearly long enough.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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