Book Reviews - Spring 2008

The Case of the Defective Detective

By Britt Peterson | March 1, 2008

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, by Kate Summerscale, Walker, $24.95

“His eyes, of a steely light grey, had a very disconcerting trick, when they encountered your eyes, of looking as if they expected something more from you than you were aware of yourself,” wrote Wilkie Collins, introducing Sergeant Cuff, the detective-hero of his 1868 suspense novel, The Moonstone. Arthur Conan Doyle would use similar language introducing Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1883): “His eyes were sharp and piercing . . . and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.” Reading these descriptions now, one recognizes and submits happily to the conventions of classic detective fiction—the all-knowing detective, the pleasurably complex plot twists, the satisfying resolution. But Betteredge, the gruff steward who narrates much of The Moonstone, can barely bottle up his frustration with Cuff, calling him, with some irony, “the great Cuff,” bursting out to Miss Verinder that he never had a hand in “this abominable detective business,” and finally allowing with reluctance, “I couldn’t help liking the Sergeant—though I hated him all the time.”

It’s not too much to argue, as Kate Summerscale does in her impeccably researched and deeply enjoyable new book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, that our comfort with detectives and detective fiction—what separates us from Betteredge—had its birth in the Road murder case of 1860 and the example of the London police investigator, Inspector Whicher, whose career was at first launched and then flung away by his steering of it. Whicher was one of the original seven police constables selected to form an elite detection unit within the Metropolitan Police in 1842. This advance—the birth of the detective—was greeted with revulsion and fascination. On the one hand, fence-building English souls, like Betteredge’s, rankled at the idea of being “investigated,” a notion barely removed from espionage. On the other hand, in those heady days of scandal sheets and celebrated murderesses, detectives were enormous fun when they kept to investigating other people.

Charles Dickens, who had a powerful case of what his friend Collins dubbed “detective-fever,” was one of the first to translate the highly evocative figure of the police detective into fiction. Bleak House (1853) featured Inspector Bucket, an amoral (if ultimately positive) force who is observed by another character to seem “in some undefinable manner to lurk and lounge.” But Dickens knew many of the men in Whicher’s unit and wrote a magazine article in 1850 lauding them in terms that almost directly contradict his portrayal of Bucket, as if the fictional version was meant to embody the charges against which Dickens the journalist was anxious to defend: “They are, one and all, respectable-looking men, of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence; with nothing lounging or slinking in their manners; with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed.”

For Whicher, the stereotypes Dickens sought to preclude were to become particularly damaging. As Summerscale presents it, the Road murder case seemed almost perfectly designed to blow up into a media sensation. The victim was a toddler from the Somersetshire town of Road, Francis Saville Kent, who was stolen from his crib in the early hours of June 29, 1860. Saville was stifled, stabbed, and tossed into the hollow under the family’s outhouse. To make matters worse, it quickly became clear that someone in the household must have done it, as there were no signs of a break-in. The family itself was mixed: Saville was a child of a second marriage; Samuel Kent had, after the death of his possibly mad first wife, married his children’s governess, Miss Pratt.

The youth of the victim, the lurid nature of the crime, the circumstances of Samuel Kent’s second marriage, the limited number of suspects—all of this twisted the English press into a tizzy. To make matters worse, Whicher conducted his investigation with maximum energy, mediocre preparation, and minimal tact. His eponymous suspicions came to rest almost immediately on Constance, the 16-year-old daughter of the first Mrs. Kent, but he had little to go on besides a convoluted theory about a missing nightgown and the sense of Constance’s intense hatred for her former governess, now stepmother. But the press had already ferreted out other suspects—Samuel Kent and Saville’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough. Dickens agreed with this version, as he gleefully described it in a letter to Collins: “Mr Kent, intriguing with the nursemaid, poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr Kent gashes body, to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same.”

Whicher’s accusation, discredited from the start, only compounded the public’s worst theories about detectives. Constance’s defending barrister painted Whicher with purple strokes: “There was a sexual undertone [to the barrister’s counterargument], a suggestion that the policeman was a clumsy, lower-class despoiler of a virginal innocent.” The press devoured him, and he returned to London a cowed man, a fact Summerscale illustrates movingly through a description of his final, much amended, 23-page report on the investigation: It “was strewn with inky underlinings, corrections, adjustments, insertions, asterisks, double asterisks, and crossings-out.” The case languished for years, gradually forgotten by the public if not by novelists like Dickens, Collins, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon—and not by Samuel Kent, whose life continued to be clouded by the general suspicion that he had murdered his three-year-old son.

Whicher’s fortunes eventually reversed, although it would be defying Dickens’s and Collins’s best principles to explain exactly how. Still, much of the reward and surprise of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher lies in Summerscale’s expansive research. We hear that the summer when Whicher was four was “remembered for its abundance of Camberwell Beauties, the large, velvety, dark-claret butterflies first seen in the area in 1748.” We are subject to translations of police slang—to “shake lurk” is to “beg in the guise of a shipwrecked sailor”—and catalogues of Somersetshire dialect: “someone marked with smallpox scars . . . was ‘pock-fredden’; to ‘skummer’ a piece of cloth was to foul it with dirty liquid; to ‘buddle’ a creature was to suffocate it in mud.” On every page is some peculiar fact, ranging from details like the broadside ballads that described the events of the Road case (“His little throat I cut from ear to ear”) to a discussion of the growing sense that eyewitness testimony—as opposed to scientifically observed evidence—was too subjective to trust in a court case: “Objects were incorruptible in their silence. They were mute witness to history, fragments—like Darwin’s fossils—that could freeze the past.”

Summerscale’s clean writing makes The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher so dynamic that she can’t be accused of “freezing” the past—instead, she has done a masterly job of reviving it, with all its curiosities and contradictions. But, most strikingly, she has created an enthralling mystery by overlaying the fictional tools of misdirection and suspense onto a nonfiction narrative that, in its day, helped inspire writers to create a new fictional genre—a strange and very impressive feat.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments are closed for this post.