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History of a crime unravelled: Book review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2009)
It is seldom that one feels empathy and compassion for a murderer, that too one who murders a 3-year-old child. But while reading Kate Summerscale's tour de force of a book exploring a true crime and tragedy that visited Road Hill House in a picturesque village in Victorian England, on the night of June 29, 1860, horror and opprobrium take second place as we realise that love and hate are but two sides of the same coin.

Published in 2009, the book has been hailed as a classic which combines brilliant storytelling with exhaustive research.  Not only is it an engrossing read, it’s also a perceptive account of the literary and social history of the period. Even as it lays bare the dark secrets that festered within respectable middle class families in an age of shuttered domesticity, it probes the faultlines in society caused by class, gender and even religion. 

The shocking case left its mark on many literary works, notably, Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) and Henry James’The Turn of the Screw (1898).  The book won the Galaxy Book of the Year award, 2009, the BBC Four Samuel Johnson prize and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award.

At the heart of the story are two figures, the celebrated Scotland Yard detective, Jonathan Whicher, and his main suspect, Constance Kent, the 16-year-old daughter of Mr Samuel Kent, a sub-inspector of factories, by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus. The dead child, Saville Kent, is his son by his second wife, Mary Pratt.  Sometime during the midnight on June 29, Saville is taken from his cot in the room he shares with his nursemaid and sister. The next morning, he is found dead in the outside privy with his throat slit. After a preliminary investigation which is bungled by the local Wiltshire cops, Jonathan Whicher is sent to investigate the matter.  The local gossip is that Samuel Kent was having an affair with the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, and the two had killed Saville when he woke up and saw them in bed together. 

Right from the beginning, however, Whicher’s suspicions are focussed on Constance, the wild and rebellious daughter by Kent’s first wife. During his meticulous investigation, he uncovers many facts that bear out his belief.  As Whicher continues his enquiries in the neighbourhood, it becomes clear that the domestic scene at Road Hill House is far from harmonious. Whicher comes to the conclusion that it is her animosity towards her stepmother and jealousy of the favoured stepbrother that has provoked Constance to commit the crime. Though she is arrested, she walks free owing to lack of evidence. Meanwhile, the public is dissatisfied with the investigation and Whicher is blamed for letting the ‘real killers’ remain undetected. A great deal of the antagonism towards Whicher stems from his lower class origins.  The detective himself is seen as a figure of iniquity on account of his profession which allows him to violate the privacy of respectable Victorian homes. Whicher returns to Scotland Yard discredited for no fault of his, and his inability to crack the case casts a shadow on his career.

The most unforgettable characters in the book are the detective and his chief suspect. Whicher’s character is fleshed out in great detail and he impresses us with his acuity and artistry. Constance is a more complex figure. The crime she is accused of evokes horror and disgust. But as we learn more about this young girl, our feelings of revulsion turn to pity and sympathy. Finally, in 1865, the crime unravelled itself when the killer confessed. Whicher himself had admitted that the case would be solved only if the killer chose to confess. And yet, there were many people who felt that the whole truth had not come out. Summerscale attempts to fill these gaps in the final pages. She also suggests that the seeds of the tragedy may actually have been sown by Samuel Kent’s promiscuity which had deleterious consequences on his first wife’s health, leading to her death at the age of 44.  However, the second Mrs Kent who inspired a fatal resentment and anger in the bosom of the teenager who in fact owed her very existence to the object of her hate is rather sketchily drawn.

As the story progresses, we realise that young Saville is not the only victim of the crime.  The collateral damage includes several characters whose lives are changed forever, tainted by the crime, its unspeakable nature and its unavoidable connotations. Summerscale’s intense and insightful reflections on the detective’s craft, her nods to writers like Poe, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, interesting riffs on the origins of words like ‘clue’ and ‘detect’... all these lift the book several notches above the run-of-the-mill crime story. Yet another interesting feature of the case was that it became a ‘battleground for the great religious controversy of the century, the fight between the High and Low elements of the Anglican church’, following the killer’s confession.

The title of the book is deliciously ironic. Posing a counterpoint to the suspicions of Mr Whicher about the killer were the suspicions of the public and media regarding the detective himself and his remit, even as they gave free rein to their own suspicions about the murder, its motives and perpetrator. As Joseph Stapleton, the Trowbridge surgeon and author of a book about the murder, The Great Crime of 1860, wrote, “suspicion has become a passion”. Heinous crimes committed by children are not modern phenomena. They are part of our past and our present and they will be part of our future, maybe more so.  But the book confirms what the world has known all along –the inescapable truth that such crimes do not damn the children as much as the adults who are responsible for them.

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