In 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent disappeared from his nursery. He was found later that day in the bottom of a privy. His throat was cut. His murder horrified the English, and his case was major news for the next few years.
The public vilified various members of the Kent household, becoming armchair detectives willing to announce their opinions in public forums like the newspaper and in personal letters to the police, despite first hand knowledge of the case. (A modern comparison: comments on online news sites.)
There were only eight detectives at Scotland Yard in 1860, and one of the best was sent to investigate Saville’s murder: Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Arriving two weeks after the murder, Whicher played catch-up, looking into the personal lives of the Kent Family, much to the shock of the general public. Working class detectives like Whicher were supposed to honor their betters, not investigate their dirty laundry.
The first mystery novels, such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, appeared at this time and echo the real life murder of poor little Saville Kent. Kate Summerscale weaves these novels, along with letters by writers such as Charles Dickens, and newspaper accounts, into her narrative.
The impact of Saville’s murder on those around him, such as his nursery-maid, add poignancy and show how an unsolved murder effects the innocent as well as the victim. Lives were damaged if not ruined by this case, including Mr. Whicher’s career. Eventually someone confesses, vindicating Inspector Whicher and finally allowing the innocent to reclaim what they could of their lives.
Summerscale’s writing is strong and weaves multiples sources into a compelling and cohesive narrative. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher will make you question if justice was every fully served.
Title: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
Author: by Kate Summerscale
Read: February 2012