The Suspicions of Mr. Which or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale is a non-fiction novel that chronicles the rise in popularity of the private investigator, the detective/crime fiction genre in the mid 1800’s and how they were influenced by the gruesome murder of a boy in his home in the English countryside.
Just before dawn on June 30, 1860, Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid of the Kent family, current residents of Road Hill House, noticed that her 3-year-old charge, Saville Kent was missing from his cot. Thinking that he might have wandered into the next room to his mother, Elizabeth Gough did not make much of his absence. Later in the morning when the nursemaid realized that Saville was not with his mother, or anywhere in the house, the whole household was alerted to the child’s absence. Apart from the missing child, the drawing room door and window, which were usually locked at night, were also open. A general alarm among the servants was raised to find Saville, who may have wandered off the premises, or kidnapped by an intruder who bore ill will toward Mr. Kent, an unfriendly Factory Inspector not well-liked by his neighbors.
The local police was alerted by Mr. Kent, who immediately left the house upon learning of the child’s absence, but by late morning, the worst had been confirmed when two local men, members of the search party, found Saville’s body hidden in the Kent family servant’s outhouse. Saville had been stabbed in the chest, his throat had been slit, and his body thrown into the latrine so that it would never be found.
With very few clues to go on and hardly any suspects with obvious motives, the local police were stumped with the case and sought the help of London’s Scotland Yard, which sent Inspector Jack Whicher to help solve the mystery of Saville’s murder. One of the original founding members of Scotland Yard, by the time of the Kent Family Murder Case, Jack Whicher was a celebrated figure in the crime world. Intelligent, genial, humble, street-savvy, with keen instincts, Inspector Whicher was the epitome of Scotland Yard and their new breed of detective inspectors. The recent formation of Scotland Yard and their newly trained intelligent and stealthy gentlemen detectives had captured the imagination of the masses through the fiction writing and crime reporting of now famous writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Later, the popularity of crime-fiction, and the brilliant mystery-solving detectives inspired the works, not only of Dickens and Collins, but of Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
Having joined the investigation of Saville Kent’s murder a week after the incident, with forensic evidence gone or tampered with, Jack Whicher was faced with the almost impossible challenge of finding the prime suspect and motive for the murder. Unlike the local police and doctors who knew Mr. Kent personally and tried to protect him and his family, Jack Whicher had no biases and investigated everyone who came in contact with Saville, both the servants, and the other members of the Kent family. The Kents were a large family composed of Mr. and Mrs. Kent, their 3 small children, and 4 older children from Mr. Kent’s first marriage. Whicher felt that Saville’s half siblings from their father’s first marriage were strong candidates as the murder(s), whose main motive could be jealousy toward the new favorite.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, Saville Kent’s murder would prove to be Jack Whicher’s undoing, the beginning of his illustrious career’s downward movement, and his decline in popularity. His initial impressions on the case, as well as his murder suspect did not jive with the popular sentiment, and thus, his abilities of deduction were questioned, not just by his superior, but also by the public.
The Case of Saville Kent’s murder sparked a new kind of interest among the masses – of gruesome murders influenced by illicit sexual affairs between master and servants, or crimes of passion between lovers; crimes against parents , or guardians for insurance money, or brought about by insanity. The public became obsessed with reading about graphic crimes committed in the busy streets of London or in old Manors in the countryside, thus heralding a new form of fiction and genre – that of crime / detective-fiction.
The mystery of Saville Kent’s murder spanned several decades, surpassing Inspector Whicher, and even after the murderer came forth to confess, the incident was still shrouded in mystery. The nature of the confession regarding how the crime was committed was questionable, though it also contained details that only the real murderer would have known. Many believed that the confessor admitted to the crime in order to protect the reputation of another.
Though intriguing because of the victim’s innocence and brutality of his killing, there was very little material regarding the actual murder and forensic investigation for the author to work with. To compensate for a lack of forensic detail, the author instead wove together the crime of Saville Kent’s death, the popularity of the Scotland Yard inspectors at the time, and the relative fame of Jack Whicher, as well as their influence on literature and crime reporting. Summerscale draws on several parallels between the Case of Saville Kent’s Murder and the plot of many now well-known mysteries, such as The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Edwin Drood, and even Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Toward the end of the novel, the author also gives an account of what happened to the key figures in the case, particularly Inspector Whicher and several other detectives, and some members of the Kent Family years after the incident took place. She chronicles the life and career of William Kent, Saville’s elder half-brother, who made a name for himself as a researcher of corals and oceanic oddities. Years after the tragic incident, William, as well as his other siblings and half-siblings migrated to Australia, probably to escape their tragic past and start anew.
An interesting read for those who enjoy crime fiction, because it gives an account of the rise, as well as the evolution of the genre through the unfortunate murder of Saville Kent, and the history of Scotland Yard and the rise and decline of the “inspector detective” through the life and career of Inspector Jack Whicher. The novel includes an extensive bibliography of sources, from several books written about Saville Kent’s murder, to newspaper articles following the events of the investigation, and court transcripts. There are also photographs of members of the Kent Family, their genealogical chart, and diagrams of the layout of Road Hill House. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, and was also shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House (2008) – Kate Summerscale
Bloomsbury; 314 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 3/5