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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Murder and the Undoing of the Great Victorian Detective    by Kate Summerscale order for
Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
by Kate Summerscale
Order:  USA  Can
Bloomsbury, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A Murder and the Undoing of the Great Victorian Detective, Kate Summerscale delves into a true crime story that's just as fascinating as many a modern mystery and whose lead investigator, Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jonathan Jack Whicher, was the precursor for a variety of fictional detectives (whose roots in the real detective the author discusses at length here, with references to the works of Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe, amongst others).

In 1860 England, three-year-old Saville Kent was found with his throat slit, in the outdoor privy of his family's Wiltshire country house, and it seemed that a member of the household had killed him (the governess came under immediate suspicion). Though the crime shocked and horrified the nation, there was still a strong backlash against what was perceived as police violation of the family's privacy. This backlash eventually destroyed the career of Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of England's first detectives - and both a competent and successful one to that point - who was 'the prototype of the enigmatic, reserved investigator ... he was ordinary-looking, keen-sighted, sharp-witted, quiet.'

Jack Whicher found a family harboring secrets at Road Hill House in Wiltshire. The first Mrs. Kent had shown signs of madness, her husband committed adultery with his children's governess and later married her (she was small Saville's mother). Partly based on a missing nightdress, Whicher soon suspected Saville's half-sister, teenage Constance Kent, of the murder, and had her arrested. She was later discharged, followed by a media-led backlash against Whicher. The author suggests that 'Perhaps Whicher was so vehemently condemned because he was doing in fact what the legions of new newspaper readers were doing in the mind's eye - peeping and prying, goggling and wondering at the sins and sufferings of others.'

Though a family member confessed to the crime many years later, the damage had been done and, as the author suggests, perhaps even then, the truth was not fully unveiled. I found The Suspicions of Mr Whicher an absorbing read, both as a traditional (though real life) murder mystery, and as a very early case of public and media fascination with celebrity murder. Mystery fans will be intrigued by The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

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