The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
8 May, 2011
I’d picked up a copy of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale a while back when it was all the rage but somehow never got around to reading it. Considering I’m such a huge fan of crime fiction and mysteries and I used to read a lot of non-fiction about Jack the Ripper and the world’s wickedest murderers, etc. I just didn’t feel the urge. Maybe it’s over-saturation and I had immersed myself in the genre too long. Who knows, these things happen. But when I saw that they were going to broadcast a TV adaptation of the book on Easter Monday, I picked it off the shelf and thought I’d finish it before watching. I was on holiday too and should have had plenty of time, but oh no, it wasn’t to be. Too much time yet too many other things to do and I kept faffing around with my reading choices.
But I started reading the book a few days later and although I was overwhelmed by all the detail at first, once I got into the rhythm of the book, it fast became a page-turner. Although I confess I was at first surprised that a non-fiction crime book could have taken the reading public by storm, I can see why it took hold of the readers’ imagination. Summerscale is brilliant at keeping the tension at just the right level to keep you turning the pages. I too wanted to know who had murdered the little boy.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House is based on true events in the 1860s when 3 year old Saville Kent is found missing from his cot. His nurse who was sleeping in the same room with her charge, Saville’s baby sister, awoke to an empty cot and assumed his mother had picked him up and taken him to her room as his blanket was folded neatly and with care. However, the alarm was soon raised that little Saville was missing and he was later found stuffed down the outdoor privy used by servants and passing tradesmen. His throat was cut and there was a bloody flannel nearby. The local police are unable to find the murderer and, ever mindful of hurting the reputations of Mr. Samuel Kent, a local factory inspector, and his household, act in a questionable manner detrimental to the investigation. However, rumours soon begin to circulate regarding the household (which consisted of his second wife and his many children from his two marriages who were not treated equally) and Scotland Yard sends their brightest detective to rural Wiltshire to solve the case.
What I found fascinating about this book was the way Summerscale shows how the formation of detectives, still a new job description within the police, was met with suspicion from local police and journalists, and excitement from writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins who incorporated detective characters based on Whicher in their fiction. It was still a fine line as the the police kept clear demarcations as to what was considered acceptable when making enquiries whereas detectives who were in plain clothes were able to pry into household affairs previously thought of as private and beyond their reach.
As Mr. Whicher makes his enquiries, it becomes clear that he believes Samuel Kent’s youngest daughter from his first marriage, Constance, has something to do with Saville’s disappearance and murder. Constance, at sixteen, has had to deal with her mother’s apparent mental instability, her death, the marriage of her father to her former governess and the birth of their children displacing her father’s affections, and had previously tried to run away to sea with her brother. She is strong and intelligent and it seems Mr. Whicher has met his match. You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out the outcome.
What I was left with, which I found unexpected, was how solitary being a detective was, even if you were as celebrated as Mr. Whicher. You worked alone encountering obstruction from the suspects as well as from those who were supposed to aid you. And I was sad at how Mr. Whicher’s brilliant career unfurled due to circumstances beyond his control which, in my opinion, were grossly unfair. As you can see, I have a soft spot for Mr. Whicher.
I finally caught up with the TV adaptation after finishing the book and I have to say that Paddy Considine, who plays Mr. Whicher, did an admirable job at portraying the detective. It was a pretty good adaptation and I felt that it wasn’t as ambiguous as the book, which left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I guess that’s the difference between fiction and fact.
You may also want to check out teadevotee’s post about both the book and film.