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

This fascinating non-fiction book tells the story of a gruesome murder and the undoing of one of England’s first detectives. It began in 1860, when a three year-old boy named Saville Kent was found dead in the family’s outhouse, after having been strangled and then stabbed repeatedly. Local police struggled with the case for two weeks before finally calling in Scotland Yard, who sent Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher to Road Hill House to investigate. Whicher was one of only 8 detectives at the time — the first detectives ever — and prior to his involvement with the Kent murder, he was one of the most well-respected men in London. He and his colleagues inspired the works of Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and many other mystery writers of the time, and their newly-developed methods of crime-solving had an indelible impact on society.

Though theories about who had killed Saville were abundant, it was Mr. Whicher’s suspicions of elder daughter Constance Kent that really got people talking. His only evidence seemed to be rumors of her dislike of her little brother (the son of Constance’s father and her former nanny, who married after Constance’s mother died), and the fact she was missing a nightgown.

Arresting Constance without solid evidence of her guilt, however, was the official begin of Whicher’s career decline, and without her confession, the case went cold, leaving Whicher looking the zealous fool. He returned to London, but never truly recovered from the effects of his “mistake.” Even five years later, when the killer finally came forward with a breath-taking confession that ultimately led to a successful conviction, Whicher’s reputation remained so marred he never really got back on his feet.

Aside from the actual tale of the Kent murder, though, this book was fascinating for its historical perspective on crime-solving and detective-ness in the 1800’s. We learn the history of Scotland Yard’s detective bureau, the semantic origin of terms like “clue” and “detective,” and the way the detectives’ much-more personal approach to crime-solving (going into people’s houses, rifling through their stuff, following them in plain clothing, etc.) impacted the people of England and their opinions of the police department.

All in all, though this book got a little bogged down in places, it was an absolutely riveting read. I really enjoyed it and will definitely look for more works by Summerscale soon. Recommended!


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