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Monday, 6 December 2010

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

I'm currently reading a lot of non-fiction books related to my PhD - cultural guides and the like - but this is the only one I've tried to read in one sitting and have been thoroughly engrossed by. Summerscale knows her subject impeccably. It's tremendous to think of the research she had to put into a three hundred page book, though the meticulous notes and select bibliography help give some indication of the extent of the undertaking.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House is the most recent analysis of a crime which transfixed the Victorian public in 1860 - the murder of toddler, Francis Saville Kent, who was stolen from his bed before his throat was cut and he was cast down an outside toilet. His half-sister, Constance, was investigated by Detective Inspector Jack Whicher but he failed to find any evidence to connect her to the crime. Five years later she confessed to the murder of her own free-will and served twenty years in prison for it.

Those are the facts of the case. What Summerscale does magnificently, however, is recreate the 'detective fever' that the murder inspired around the country. The story was picked up by every major newspaper and they, along with the police themselves, were inundated with amateur theories. Due to the incompetence of the local police (and the worry concerned with violating the 'private sphere' of the family), Whicher was not brought to the scene until two weeks after the murder occurred. He was later vilified by the press and public for his accusations towards Constance Kent, with the wider world more inclined to believe rumours of a sexual nature involving father, Samuel Kent.

Summerscale's analysis is succinct. She rarely refers to speculation unless it is directly from the mouths of the witnesses, newspapermen or police officers involved. Her analysis of the wider issues of detection and sensation in Victorian England is both necessary and informative. It opens up the book to people who have no prior knowledge of Victorian crime and culture whilst reminding those who do of key concepts and people.

I found the final few chapters about the lives of the main players after Constance's incarceration (and release) especially fascinating. Again, Summerscale refrains from over-zealous speculation, though her theory about the 'truth' of the murder is sound and based on a credible understanding of the family and their history.

In parts this book is a little gruesome, especially in regard to particulars about the corpse of the child. However, Summerscale strives to create a vivid and whole account of the crime, making such descriptions necessary. There is a sense at first that she is wasting too much time introducing the 'characters' as she herself puts it, but her introductory chapters feed into the whole to such an extent that they shouldn't be discounted.

This was recommended as useful reading for my PhD and it has been extremely helpful in that respect. However, the intricacies of the crime and Summerscale's unflinching analysis of it are likely to be the aspects which stick with me for some time to come. I would recommend it to both Victorian scholars and those interested in a good read of the non-fiction variety.

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