Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review - The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury 2009)

In 1860, the gruesome murder of a small boy in an affluent middle-class household gripped the nation. The four-year-old child had been taken from his cot in a room where his nurse slept, carried downstairs and out of the house where his throat was slit and his body bundled into a privy in the garden. All members of the household were under suspicion - the father Samuel Kent, unpopular local sub-inspector of factories; the mother of the boy Mary Kent, who had been governess to Kent's older children before their mother died and she married Kent; the children of Kent's first marriage; the nursemaid and other servants.

The crime took place in the village of Road, on the borders of Wiltshire and Somerset, and was investigated by the local Wiltshire police. However, such was the national interest that the Home Secretary instructed Scotland Yard's recently formed Detective division to take over the investigation (just as, this week, the Prime Minister, under pressure from the press, has instructed the Metropolitain Police to review the investigation into the disappearance of Madelaine McCann). Commissioner Mayne sent his best man, Detective Inspector Jack Whicher.

This real-life case, one hundred and fifty years on, could have been drawn from the writings of any number of our great crime writers. The suspects are the inhabitants of a locked country house, any number of which could have had motives for killing the child. Class divisions loom large - the factory inspector has alienated the local workers. The local police do not trust the London detective foisted upon them. Suspects are brought before the magistrates, but evidence is inconclusive, the mystery deepens.

Kate Summerscale marshals the story with great skill, patiently setting out layer upon layer of evidence drawn from the court records, the archives of the Metropolitain Police and newspaper reports of the day. But she doesn't just focus on the case in hand. This period saw the development both of the detective force and its corollory, the detective novel. Summerscale places this case firmly in the context of the evolution of the police force, but also shows how its reporting reflected the new genre of detective fiction, and how the case directly inspired the writers who were to create the first great fictional detectives, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, who were both familar with Jack Whicher and whose Inspectors Cuff and Bucket shared key characteristics with him.

From her description of the factory system in Trowbridge to the impact of the Oxford Movement on the Church of England, Kate Summerscale fills in the background detail with precision and clarity. Whicher is drawn as a character who could engage in a library-full of detective stories - he even, as in all the books, has his sidekick, Dolly Williamson, his steadier, less-inspired companion (who nevertheless went on to become Chief Superintendant of Scotland Yard). The Kent family, so respectable, nevertheless has many secrets hidden behind the walls of Road Hill House. These are finally exposed in a proper unputdownable manner as is the case in all the great Detective novels.

1 comment:

Cally said...

I started reading this book earlier this year, but had to put it down for some reason. Needless to say, it is now wedged in my pile! Remind me to discuss it with you once I am done :)