I’m a sucker for a good detective story.
So, apparently, was England during the Victorian era.
Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective goes into great depths investigating the murder of 3 year old Francis Saville Kent, the baby of Road Hill House, where the higher class Kent family lived.
Jack Whicher was one of the eight original detectives of the newly formed “detective branch” of Scotland Yard, and was only called in after local authorities botched the investigation. Local police were certain that the child’s nursemaid was involved in the crime, for no other reason except that people of higher classes didn’t commit crimes (and so the whole Kent family was excluded from investigation from the get-go). The only family member who garnered some suspicion was the head of the household, Francis’s father, Samuel Kent, who local police believed was having an affair with the nursemaid. There was no evidence of this affair.
Whicher ended up focusing on the family, and due to suspicious circumstances (such as a missing nightgown) finally settled on 16 year old Constance Kent, Francis’s half sister, as Francis’s murderer. Constance’s mother had died some time prior, and Constance, along with her brother, felt much left out of their father’s life with his new wife. But sadly, due to the whole “aristocrats – especially aristocratic ladies – don’t commit crimes” attitude of the times, the papers and public opinion supported Constance, and Whicher returned to London with his reputation in tatters – it took quite some time for it to recover.
He was eventually vindicated though; Constance confessed to the murder some 3 years later, and was imprisoned for it, at least for awhile.
Constance never explained why she did it. It’s been suggested she was mentally unbalanced, but Summerscale concludes that her confession was probably false and it was made to shield another person – most likely her brother, William Saville Kent, another relic of their father’s first marriage. They shared a close sibling relationship and at the time, Constance’s options in life were much more limited than William’s. William went on to become an early marine biologist. The motive of the crime was believed to be jealousy of Francis’s position as their father’s favorite, and the attention Samuel gave to his second wife’s children rather than his first wife’s children.
If William or Constance killed Francis, the other was most likely some kind of accomplice in the matter. But it was only ever Constance who ever got real blame or who ever gave any kind of confession. If her family did care about her reputation, they certainly never made an effort to clear her name while she was alive.
I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to. It was well researched and well read, and it read like a true crime book. It was fun to learn how murder fascinated Victorian England, and that this was one of the first murders that captivated the whole country.
I also had an affinity for Jack Whicher. He’s been dead over 100 years, but he was still very good at his job, inspiring more famous detectives, such as Charles Dickens’s character Inspector Bucket.
Any true crime fan should read this book. It’s like, the original true crime. Sure, it’s not true crime exactly, but it is a good whodunnit: a murdered toddler, a dashing detective, and a great plot twist. How can you turn that down?