“In strictness we are all made when we give way to passion, to prejudice, to vice, to vanity; but if all the passionate, prejudiced and vain people were to be locked up as lunatics, who is to keep the key to the asylum?”
The year is 1860 and a three-year-old boy has been discovered dead with his throat slashed in the outdoor privy of his family’s home. Sent by Scotland Yard Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher investigates the murder, which has propelled the English public into a ‘detective-fever.’ The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale takes readers through the investigation, the trials, and aftermath, which would not only change a family, but the world’s fascination with murder mystery forever.
*Review may contain spoilers*
It was a true whodunit.
Back in grand ole Victorian England, the detective was making headlines, literally. Detectives started to pop up in the police force around the 1840s and gained fame by the 60s for their unique abilities. And Jonathan Whicher was considered one of the best.
Much like Sherlock Holmes (who wouldn’t be introduced for another 27 years) Jonathan Whicher observed people and deduced. In one case, he took down a jewel thief when he noticed the lady shift her hands and then proceeded to drop diamond rings in a scuffle. Whicher’s exploits were well known and people respected him.
That is until the death of Francis Saville Kent.
The boy (usually just called Saville) was three when he was murdered in June 1860. Many believed the crime to have been committed by an outsider, someone, perhaps, slighted by the boy’s father, Samuel Kent, who wasn’t in high graces with the community around Road Hill. Whicher soon dismissed that idea, concluding it had to be someone within the house.
Whicher would complete a full investigation, even accusing someone, but when he couldn’t provide enough evidence, and his invasive actions toward the family privacy became public knowledge, he was scorned by all and cast away though, years later, his suspicions were proven right.
I didn’t really know there was an origin story for the first murder mystery and I really didn’t know that it had to do with the murder of a child, but, hey, look at me, learning things.
There’s an episode of Deadly Women about this crime, and though I’d watched it years ago I knew who the culprit was though Summerscale does a lovely job at hinting and keeping the focus on that particular person in a sly way.
At first, I was intimidated because before the book starts there’s a list of characters, and basically everyone is on it. Not only are the Kent family members and servants listed, so are town villagers, local police, Scotland Yard detectives, and people in neighboring towns.
I took the list with a grain of salt, knowing not everyone would be that vital and concentrated on the major players. Which led to my biggest problem: the book title.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a fantastic title, oozing in Victorian tone and appearance. The language, with the information gathered, sends readers back, with footnotes explaining the justice system of the time. But, I have to ask, if these are Mr. Whicher’s suspicions, then where is he?
It’s not like he’s randomly missing, but only appears when the story needs him to, like a secondary character and not a main one. And, yes, there’s limited information about the guy, but if the book is going to share his name I would want him to have a definite presence. It reminds me of Harry Houdini in The Witch of Lime Street and the problems I faced then.
And his ‘suspicions’ are only that because he can’t find adequate evidence to support it. Assumptions or even notes would be better phrasing since suspicions are what the public had when playing detective themselves when the case became cold.
It also doesn’t help that the book overshadows Whicher, but it feels more like the suspect’s than his and I wish Summerscale had taken it into account.
I don’t know, I like the title, but I don’t. Schmee.
Summerscale likes to list things and especially about tedious information. The two instances that stuck out most were when she’s explaining who is who, listing their name, occupation, and age despite the character chart and then with the prices of the furniture sold when the Kent family moves away from Road Hill, listing every single item she possibly could.
It was moments like those that overshadowed the fantastic research regarding Whicher, the Kents and history of the judicial system in Victorian England.
I enjoy Summerscale’s research abilities and admire the trouble she goes to to include every little detail, but the overall effect on the subject of murder mystery was the true selling point of the entire story with Whicher and the murderer as the icing on the cake.