The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Kate Summerscale deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction when her real-life story of ‘murder and intrigue in Victorian England’ was published in 2008. The book received excellent reviews and has since been made into a short film for television; I recommend it unreservedly to any of my friends who enjoy reading crime fiction. Summerscale writes with style and elegance, and her recreation of a particular time and place in nineteenth-century Britain is fascinating to read.

On June 30th 1860, the wealthy Kent family of Road Hill house awoke to discover that their youngest son, Saville, was missing. His mutilated body was found in the grounds, igniting one of Victorian England’s greatest scandals: the killer had to be someone inside the house.

This was a scenario straight from the pages of nineteenth-century sensation fiction. Writers like Wilkie Collins  and M. E. Braddon located the source of unrest and violence in the domestic rather than in the outer world; their most threatening characters are husbands, wives, servants and parents. Three-year-old Saville Kent was taken from the upstairs nursery, through the long passage-ways and many rooms of the securely-locked house and then into the out-buildings, where he was killed.

John Whicher, the detective assigned to the case, believed that he had discovered who the murderer was, but he was unable to prove his case. (A confession made years later vindicated his findings.) Summerscale’s narrative carefully unfolds the details and clues that led to Whicher’s solution, while giving the reader a vivid picture of middle-class domestic life in Victorian England, from the scullery to the drawing-room.

A wonderful example of well-researched creative non-fiction, a book not to be missed.

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