The International Writers Magazine: Book Review
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
Paperback: 400 pages Pub: January 2009
Chris Mills review
This study of the Road Hill House murder case (1860) was first published in 2008 and a paperback edition came out earlier this year with newly unearthed material including previously unknown photographs of the leading investigator Jonathon (Jack) Whicher. There have been earlier books on this intriguing case (Saint with Red Hands by Iseult Bridges, 1954 and Cruelly Murdered by Bernard Taylor, 1979) which I read some years ago so it was with interest and (morbid?) curiosity that I approached Kate Summerscale’s new study. It was well worth the effort. Summerscale takes a fresh look at the intriguing case and offers a new perspective. She does of course have the benefit of information not available to earlier students of the case.
This is a fascinating re-investigation of the murder of Savill Kent (aged three years) on 30 June1860, that caused England to be gripped with a severe bout of ‘detective- fever‘. It seemed that anyone and everyone in the country had a theory about the case. The press was full of the ins and outs of the investigation. Theories were endlessly debated and yet a conviction for the crime was not obtained until several years later as a result of a confession. Even then there were (and indeed still are) unanswered questions. This book therefore isn’t so much a ’whodunnit’ as a ’whydunnit’. But the main strength of the book is that it offers a vivid account of the period, where plain clothed detectives were still rare and an Englishman’s home was still very much his castle. Kate Summerscale broadens her account of the case with a lively discussion of the early days of the plain clothes detective. One of the first eight detectives in London Metropolitan Police’s Detective Division was the very able Jack Whicher. At this time the plain clothes detective was still regarded with a great deal of suspicion by the general public. This situation would not be improved by the events surrounding the Road Hill House case.
The story is as follows. A respectable factory inspector, Samuel Kent lived with his second wife, three young children and the four children from his first marriage in a detached Georgian house in Road, Wiltshire known as Road Hill House. Savill was the youngest son. He was missed by his nurse early in the morning but a search failed to find him in the house. He was finally found in an outside privy with his throat cut. On the night preceding the murder all of the family were at home along with their three female live-in servants. The house had been secured at night and there was no sign of a break in. Thus is the scene set for the true life crime that was to become the inspiration for many works of fiction ever since. The original country house murder with its assorted cast of suspects, each with a possible motive and with perhaps also something to hide.
Many people subsequently disagreed with Whicher’s handling of the case and in particular his arrest of Constance Kent (Samuel’s sixteen year old daughter) on suspicion of murder. Of course eventually he was vindicated when Kent confessed to the murder some years later. By that time Whicher had left the force and gone into private detective work. Much of the disquiet around the case focussed upon the perceived violation of the sanctity of the middle class home. Respectable public opinion was horrified at the sight of the Kent family life being opened to prurient gaze by the working class detective who obviously didn‘t know his place. Presumably the very folks avidly following the more salacious aspects of the case were also the ones who were so shocked at the public intrusion into previously private lives.
Original source material used in the book illustrates the way in which the case captured the imagination of the reading public. Summerscale’s exhaustive research has unearthed a mass of contemporary press reporting and opinions on the murder. Incredibly, many would- be sleuths wrote to Scotland Yard offering the detectives solutions to the case and pointing out details that they may have missed. Wilkie Collins coined the phrase ’detective-fever’ (The Moonstone, 1868) and it is certainly an apt in this case. Unfortunately the public had to wait some time for an arrest and trial to conclude the case. Constance eventually confessed to the murder in 1865 at the same time insisting that she was the sole perpetrator. But was she? It seems unlikely that she would have been able to commit the crime without an accomplice. And why did she do it? She had supposedly been fond of her half-brother. Since Constance pleaded guilty, no defence case was put forward that may have clearly established motive. The case was perplexing to say the least. The death sentence was commuted to twenty years imprisonment after pleas for clemency were made on her behalf due to age at the time of the murder.
The latter part of the book follows the Kent family in later years, and succeeds in tracing Kent’s life in Australia. There she took a new name and rather disconcertingly trained as nurse. Perhaps atonement? She succeeded in dropping completely out of the public eye, living to be a hundred. We will never know why Constance Kent killed her step brother or who she was protecting with her confession. Summerscale does a good job in teasing out all of the strands of the case and making it into an involving read. Although, despite her best efforts the character of Constance Kent remains an enigma to the end.
© Chris Mills Dec 2009
cdmillsratel at hotmail.com