The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details the infamous case of the abduction and murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in an English country house in 1860. At the start of the text, the cast of characters is presented as in a play, and the floorplan of Road Hill House laid out like the map of a fantasy kingdom; the names and property, however, once belonged to a real family caught up in a horrific tragedy, which transformed their home from a domestic sanctum into the scene of a brutal murder. Kate Summerscale draws upon an extensive body of research to provide a reconstruction of the events of the Road Hill case, and centres her story around the investigation of the detective Jack Whicher.
Saville Kent’s murder cut straight to the heart of Victorian sensibilities. The case opened up the family home to public scrutiny, leading to an unsettling new perspective on the idealised Victorian family. The remarriage of Samuel Kent, Saville’s father, to the family governess presented a troubling thought, abetted by the likelihood of the two engaging in an adulterous relationship while Samuel’s first wife was still alive. The conventional perception of children was similarly undermined by the scrutiny of the Kent family, as it emerged that murderous desires could lie dormant under the most angelic of facades. The investigation itself tore apart the idea that a home provided a place of security: the investigating officers quite literally riffled through the family’s dirty linen. The cheap thrills offered by tabloid journalism and the vicarious excitements of sensation fiction entangled with the case, which dominated the public imagination for decades to come. Subverting the cultural norms of Victorian society lent the case an enduring notoriety, which persists even in the 21st-century, as the success of Summerscale’s novel and the subsequent TV adaptation attests.
A particularly interesting aspect of Summerscale’s account of the case is the way in which real life entwines with the course of fiction. This parallel is reflected in the structure of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher itself, which dresses up the true facts of the case in the guise of a novel. By 1860, detectives had formed an arm of the London metropolitan police for almost twenty years, yet their status within society remained undetermined. On the one hand, the detective presented a reassuring figure, an officer of the law capable of solving the puzzles of villainy and restoring order to the narrative of public life. On the other hand, the detective was often perceived as an invasive presence, partly due to the working class origins of the officers. Contemporary literature mirrors this duality, presenting detectives as both effective and morally ambiguous. The idea of the locked-house mystery, in which the culprit must be an insider, has had a profound impact on detective and horror fiction, while the failure of the Kent’s guard dog to raise the alarm may have influenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock Holmes notes the curious incidence of the dog’s failure to bark at an intruder, which suggests that the perpetrator was familiar to the household. In addition, the marriage between Samuel and Mary Kent mirrors the plot of both the earlier Jane Eyre and the subsequent Lady Audley’s Secret: the man of the house ignores his mad first wife in order to court the family governess.
Unlike fiction, however, real-life detectives cannot tie up all the loose ends and bid the reader farewell with the reassuring message that villains will always meet their just deserts. The confession of his killer will not restore life to the butchered body of Saville Kent, and the darker secrets of the family remain forever hidden from investigators. Perhaps that’s why the best loved of detective stories, like Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, undermine the cosy idea of narrative closure, as real life often fails to provide us with such comfort.