The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
‘Whicher exposed the corruptions within the household: sexual transgression, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing. The scene he uncovered aroused fear (and excitement) at the thought of what might be hiding behind the closed doors of other respectable houses.’
On a summer’s morning in 1860, the Kent family awakes in their elegant Wiltshire home to a terrible discovery: their youngest son has been brutally murdered. When celebrated detective Jack Whicher is summoned from Scotland Yard, he faces the unenviable task of identifying the killer – when the grieving family are the suspects.
This true crime novel from Kate Summerscale is a classic Victorian whodunit. Summerscale succeeds at taking a murder, examining the pieces and putting them together again to create a fascinating picture not only of a crime, but of Victorian society as a whole.
Summerscale uses the Road Hill House murder (as it became known) as a jumping off point for a discussion about a number of interesting tangents. Some reviewers have found this irritating but, if you are interested in the Victorians, you will find much to enjoy here.
At the time of the murder, police detectives had only really been around in England for the past eight years, and the public were less than keen that these ‘lower class’ men were forcing their way into middle class homes and digging up family secrets in search of clues. Nevertheless, detective fiction was quickly increasing in popularity and authors such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins captured the public’s imagination with their tales of clever detectives solving terrible crimes.
The Road Hill House murder made Victorians uncomfortable not only at the thought that someone was capable of such a horrific crime, but because it drew back the curtain on respectable family homes and exposed the secrets within. People began to wonder what others might be hiding. In an era in which the Englishman’s home was his castle, the idea that violence and insanity might be lurking within was truly a terrifying one.
Summerscale is let down only by the lack of information readily available about titular character Jack Whicher, who remains an indistinct figure throughout despite being one of the main characters. I never really felt as though I got to know him.
Although it’s not particularly difficult to work out who committed the crime, it’s still fascinating reading about the various twists and turns of the case, the trials and questioning of suspects, the miscarriages of justice, and the effect of the crime on each of the key players who were in the house the night the boy was murdered.
True crime fans will love this fascinating account of a Victorian murder that shocked the nation and exposed sins and secrets along the way.