On a summer’s morning in 1860, the Kent family awakes in their elegant Wiltshire home to a terrible discovery; their youngest son has been brutally murdered. When celebrated detective Jack Whicher is summoned from Scotland Yard he faces the unenviable task of identifying the killer – when the grieving family are the suspects.
The original Victorian whodunnit, the murder and its investigation provoked national hysteria at the thought of what might be festering behind the locked doors of respectable homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is the second book I’ve read by Kate Summerscale following on from The Haunting of Alma Fielding earlier this year. It’s an interesting case and I like the conclusion that the author came to, but I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy this one as much – largely due to my own expectations and the style of the narrative. I do realise that this is a work of non-fiction, but given that Alma Fielding is very much an example of narrative non-fiction I was expecting something similar. In Mr Whicher, I felt that the “story” was disjointed due to the inclusion of quotes and sources from the time. It showcases the huge amount of research that the author has put into this work, but it made for a more difficult reading experience for me personally.
It is a fascinating case, however. When Saville Kent – the youngest son of Samuel and Mary Kent – is found murdered in the family home, the culprit is almost certainly one of the household. The local police become involved but botch the investigation, and it’s only when Detective Jonathan Whicher arrives some two weeks later that the investigation really gets moving. Of course, the limited evidence that could have been considered at the time is largely non-existent by that stage, making the case much more difficult than it might otherwise have been.
Summerscale sets the scene brilliantly, providing interesting context as well as expanding upon the lives of those most closely involved so that they are more than names on a page. This is particularly true for Whicher – amongst the first Detectives – and we learn a little about his life and the skills considered useful for the profession which was in its infancy at the time. This became a landmark case within the UK, and it’s one that came to affect Whicher’s life significantly, and not in a positive way. He is portrayed in a sympathetic light, and so the reader feels the unfairness at the events that come to pass, particularly as he is vindicated some years later.
There’s also fascinating detail around the history of “police detectives” and police work in general, both the good and the bad. It’s horrifying to think that some individuals may not have been questioned or come under suspicion purely down to their status. Such is the case here as Saville’s family – his parents, siblings, and half-siblings – are not immediately questioned, only the servants are subjected to that imposition. It’s only when Whicher arrives that the family are interviewed, his role as a detective perhaps enabling to disregard class boundaries that have hitherto provided protection for certain individuals. One can’t help but wonder how many people got away with violent crimes – and how many innocents suffered – simply because of this oversight.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher wasn’t for me personally – I would prefer an author to paraphrase source material rather than quote it directly, although that’s very much a personal preference. It may appeal to fans of true crime and anyone with an interest in the history of policing or the way in which such real life cases came to influence the earliest works of detective fiction.