May 2009

On the morning of 30th June 1860, in the village of Road, Wiltshire, the three year old son of Samuel and Mary Kent was found missing from his cot in the nursery of their elegant mansion. His body, the throat cut and with stab wounds to the chest, was subsequently discovered stuffed down a servants’ privy in the grounds. After a fortnight of local police enquiries, the renewed pleas to the Home Secretary by the Wiltshire magistrates to send ‘an intelligent officer’ and articles in national and local papers ridiculing the efforts to solve the crime thus far resulted in the summoning of Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher to Road.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is Kate Summerscale’s masterly account of the murder at Road Hill House, a true crime which gripped the nation. Jonathan Whicher was one of the first detectives, some of whose previous cases had already inspired Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and spawned a new literary genre, the detective novel. The Great British public viewed detectives and their methods with admiration and cynicism in equal measure and followed the investigations into the murder of Saville Kent with passionate interest, particularly as it almost certainly was the work of an inmate of the house. The possibility that the child might have been murdered by one of his half-siblings, or even his father, rather than a servant was considered so unlikely that the local police had not interrogated members of the family and the coroner had recorded the death as murder by person or persons unknown. It was left to Jonathan Whicher to uncover the secrets of Road Hill House.

Kate Summerscale’s erudite examination of the crime and its consequences provide the reader with a thriller full of historical detail, complete with sensational revelations, coupled with a biography of the detective in charge of the case and, at the same time, an account of the early days of forensic science. Even the new words and phrases being coined at the time to describe aspects of investigation come under her scrutiny. Many of us particularly enjoyed the references to the influence of the murder investigation on contemporary literature. But perhaps the most fascinating revelations of all are those unearthed by the writer herself, which she saves for the last chapter. We highly recommend the book.

We next meet on 11th June to discuss The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon.

 

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