Book 4; Continent: Europe

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Shocking Murder and Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summersdale

  • 372 pages (302 pages excluding Afterward, Postscript and Notes)
  • A little insight into the classic mystery genre for your next dark and stormy night

The Victorian-era mystery novel: a shocking murder, a household of secretive suspects, an astute and confident detective. In England’s cool summer of 1860, the real murder of a three-year-old boy made national—even international—news. His death and the subsequent investigation captured so much attention from the newspapers and the public that several novelists began to borrow aspects of the case in their fictional writing. Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and especially Wilkie Collins (wrote The Woman in White, a famous novel of the time) followed the news related to the crime and drew inspiration from it.

But why? The sad fact is, Francis Saville Kent, the murdered boy, couldn’t have been the only child slain in England that summer. What made his story so engaging to the Victorian public mind? First, the particularly grisly method of his killing made exciting newpaper copy. His murderer stole him from his bed in the middle of the night, while his governess lay sleeping only a few feet away. Then, the killer slashed his throat so viciously as to nearly decapitate him, stabbed him through the heart, and then pushed his corpse into the privy. The mutilation involved suggested an especially grim and unfamiliar story.

Second, the Kent family secrets all surfaced in the printed pages of the country’s newspapers. The little boy had been the favorite of the Kent children. Saville’s mother had been his father’s second wife. The second Mrs. Kent had been governess to Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife. He’d had been having an affair with her while the first Mrs. Kent was hidden away with rumored mental illness. After her death, Kent married the governess. The children by the first marriage now lived on the same floor as the servants, clearly indicating their reduced status within the blended family. Pretty sordid stuff for the newspapers in an age when people cherished privacy. At one time, average people were seldom alone: dwellings were small, often one-room affairs, and even the local lord and his wife shared their bedchamber with servants or children. Now that Victorian-era people didn’t know what their neighbors were up to, however, they could speculate about all sorts of goings-on behind closed doors. A story like this fed into the collective imagination.

Third, the title character, Mr. Jonathan Whicher, drew public curiosity and opinion himself. The detective-inspector had come from London to solve the crime committed in the Kent country house. Scotland Yard was a new service, its detectives collected from among London’s more successful policemen, and opinions about it were mixed. Some felt that most of these detectives, who had a working-class background, were uppity social climbers. Others were fascinated by the idea of using logic and collecting evidence to solve crimes—a surprisingly new concept in an era where phrenology (the idea that bumps on the head could be “read” to reveal a person’s character) was still taken seriously. Whicher’s own lower-class background fed into the “uppity” stereotype, but he was just about as austere and buttoned-up a character as it was possible to be without crossing over into caricature. Author Summersdale tells us that he provided the inspiration for Wilkie Collins’ detective character Sergeant Cuff, although his personality traits turn up in other fictional detective-inspectors and private detectives of the time, too.

Although Jonathan Whicher grew famous from his investigations and heroes of the detective genre appeared with many of his personality traits, he endured a fall from public grace. The public, once fascinated with the idea of the detective’s seemingly infallible intuition lost faith when he failed to deliver the perpetrator in some later cases. Many letters to the editor also sided with local police in the Kent case, accusing Whicher of destroying the reputation of a family of his social betters.

Broadsheet ballads (the made-up songs the newsboys would sing of the headlines) told Victorian England that the Kent murder got better and better. Bungled evidence collection, concealing evidence, and shocking ideas like “homicidal monomania” (the idea that someone was basically sane except where the murder they had committed was concerned) entered the story. Insanity was a popular plea for women. In fact, the idea of the criminally crazy woman locked away in some manor turns up in lots of popular fiction of the day (Jane Eyre, anyone?). Charles Dickens mined the newspaper coverage of the murder for sordid details included in his Mystery of Edwin Drood, his unfinished novel.

Although I have avoided revealing the murderer here, only part of Summersdale’s book concerns the crime itself. She does a thorough and engaging job of retelling its story. However, the larger theme of the book puts the murder in a historical and literary context. She discusses ties to other famous English works of the time, like Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, too. Read this book if you appreciate a creepy classic to read by the fireside on the proverbial dark and stormy night.

Photo Credit: “Abandoned Old House” by Witthaya Phonsawat, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

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