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

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

3.2 69
by Kate Summerscale
 

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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

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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective," by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury). In crime annals, it's right up there with the Lindbergh trial or the mystery surrounding JonBenet Ramsey: In 1860, one of Scotland Yard's finest was sent to solve the murder of a little boy at an upscale address near London. It turned out Jack Whicher's hunch was right, and his footwork fed the public imagination as well as writers such as Charles Dickens. Sadly, failure to clinch the case in court upended Whicher's career.” —Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzell, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Takes you back to a specific place and time with all the imagination and skill of a top-tier historical novelist. You hang on every word, flipping pages faster than you can read them….If you like your murder mysteries wrapped up in a neat little package, this isn't the book for you. But if you're looking for a complex, intellectually stimulating thriller that will leave you breathless, well, this mystery is well worth inspecting.” —Fairfield County Weekly

“[A] fastidious reconstruction and expansive analysis of the Road Hill murder case…Summerscale smartly uses an energetic narrative voice and a suspenseful pace, among other novelistic devices, to make her factual material read with the urgency of a work of fiction. What she has constructed, specifically, is a traditional country-house mystery, more brutal than cozy, but presenting the same kind of intellectual puzzle as her fictional models and adorned, as such books once were, with wonderfully old-fashioned maps, diagrams, engravings, courtroom sketches and other illustrations…More important, Summerscale accomplishes what modern genre authors hardly bother to do anymore, which is to use a murder investigation as a portal to a wider world. When put in historical context, every aspect of this case tells us something about mid-Victorian society…The author's startling final twist both vindicates her fallen hero and advances an ‘aggressive' attack on moral hypocrisy in his day and ours.” —Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

“Reads like a modern crime novel, filled with intriguing tidbits about the beginnings of criminal detection and the modern mystery crime novel.” —K. Sue Collins, The Tampa Tribune

“A terrific book...opens up a dark door in the Victorian credenza--dense with detail, and yet with a nimbleness to the writing that's unusual even for a very good detective story.” —Nicholson Baker

“A brilliant reconstruction of the obstacles facing detectives long before the advent of forensic technology.” —Nick Owchar, LA Times Book Review

“Kate Summerscale's THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER (Walker; 360 pages) is not just a dark, vicious true-crime story; it is the story of the birth of forensic science, founded on the new and disturbing idea that innocent, insignificant domestic details can reveal unspeakable horrors to those who know how to read them.” —Lev Grossman, Time

“One eloquent doozy of a true-crime thriller.” —Entertainment Weekly, Grade A-

“The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" combines a thumping good mystery yarn with fine social and literary history.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“This is a great biographical fiction of an interesting real life mid nineteenth century detective working a shocking homicide case.” —Harriet Klausner, Mysterylovers.com

“Fascinating.” —Roger Miller, Denver Post

“If you are a mystery lover, or if you have ever wondered how the modern love of the genre began, you'll enjoy Summerscale's tracing of the early days of the profession and the fascination it exerted...a fascinating look at Victorian life, death and detection” —Mary Foster, Associated Press

“Summerscale's clean writing makes The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher so dynamic that she can't be accused of "freezing" the past--instead, she has done a masterly job of reviving it, with all its curiosities and contradictions. But, most strikingly, she has created an enthralling mystery by overlaying the fictional tools of misdirection and suspense onto a nonfiction narrative that, in its day, helped inspire writers to create a new fictional genre--a strange and very impressive feat.” —Britt Peterson, The American Scholar

“told and interwoven with admirable skill and definition.” —Bookpage

“A bang-up sleuthing adventure.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A mesmerizing portrait of one of England's first detectives and the gruesome murder investigation that nearly destroyed him….Whicher is a fascinating hero, and readers will delight in following every lurid twist and turn in his investigation.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“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.” —Library Journal

“Summerscale has produced not only a dazzling non-fiction thriller, but also an acute work of literary and social history.” —The Daily Express

“Kate Summerscale's book is a tour de force. It sweeps us irresistibly into the investigation, turning us into armchair detectives… Under the spell of [her] scrupulous intelligence and mesmerizing research, we are drawn into a detective story within a detective story that takes us halfway into the 20th century and across the sea to Tasmania before the clues finally add up to what surely must be the last word on the Road Hill Murder.” —The Daily Mail

“Summerscale has constructed nothing less than a masterpiece… The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is at one and the same time a crime thriller, a sociological history, a biography and a fascinating essay on the nature of investigation… My shelves are stacked with books about crime, but none more satisfying than this.” —Craig Brown, The Mail on Sunday

“Summerscale has done excellent research in ferreting out the details of this curious case. [She] has come up with a new solution to the puzzle and in doing so has produced a book that deepens and expands the knowledge of what one would have thought was an already over-examined case: a remarkable achievement.” —The Sunday Times

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.
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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802715357
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Publication date:
04/15/2008
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.32(d)

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.

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.

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Suspicions of Mr. Whicher 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 reviews.
RILLA More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
americanbulldogmom More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Kristen Stubenraugh More than 1 year ago
It was hard to put down. Well written and researched.
Ginya More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
meu More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Being both a history and historical true crime fan, this book was perfect. Very interesting, well researched and engaging. The author helps youto not only get a full grasp of the crime and how it effected everyone involved longterm. She also presents solid questions as to Constance's guilt and who might actually be responsible. I was very intrigued throughout the book and loved the snapshots of victorian life as well. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great non-fiction - true crime book. Creepy family, awful murder, and the story of the beginning of the job of detective. Loved that the book gave complete history of each of the major players in this sad affair. Well worth my time and money. This book deserves an A+++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author is a genius storyteller. Great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not your typical true crime story. Instead, it's a snapshot of victorian life, centered around a tragic murder.
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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.
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Even if a tad dry at times. The gripping subject matter made up for it
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Excellent account of this horrific tragedy- my heart broke for that poor little boy!
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