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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a… (2008)

by Kate Summerscale

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,2641643,247 (3.44)331
In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land, Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. Whicher quickly believed the unbelievable--that someone within the family was responsible for the murder of young Saville Kent. Without sufficient evidence or a confession, though, his case was circumstantial and he returned to London a broken man. Though he would be vindicated five years later, the real legacy of Jonathan Whicher lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, knowing, and all-seeing detective that we know and love today ... from the cryptic Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade.--From publisher description.… (more)
Recently added byArina8888, private library, shifragirl, Snowflake1166
  1. 70
    The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (wonderlake)
    wonderlake: Victorian crime
  2. 70
    Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Lady Audley's Secret (1862) mirrors the themes of the real-life Constance Kent case (1860).
  3. 30
    The Complete History of Jack the Ripper by Philip Sugden (susanbooks)
    susanbooks: Both books are examples of Victorian social history at its best.
  4. 20
    The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower (mysterymax)
    mysterymax: Again, an example of a true crime having a profound influence on the mystery genre.
  5. 20
    The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  6. 10
    Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (alalba)
    alalba: There are some similarities in the stories, that include the murder investigarion and trial.
  7. 10
    The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (hairball)
  8. 10
    Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman (susanbooks)
  9. 00
    Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy (schmootc)
  10. 00
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens (cbl_tn)
    cbl_tn: Dickens' Inspector Bucket may have been based on Jonathan "Jack" Whicher.
  11. 00
    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (libelulla1)
    libelulla1: Both are true crime told in narrative format and the crime in each is never fully explained, only speculated about.
  12. 00
    Crippen: A Novel of Murder by John Boyne (sanddancer)
  13. 00
    The Library Paradox by Catherine Shaw (hairball)
  14. 01
    The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: The Devil In the White City and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher are compelling and richly detailed books about historical true crime. These stories present not only details about the crime but also about the social mores of the time.
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» See also 331 mentions

English (155)  Italian (3)  Dutch (2)  French (2)  German (2)  All languages (164)
Showing 1-5 of 155 (next | show all)
I couldn't get into this book. It promises a shocking murder, but goes about it in the most dry and dull manner possible. I'm going to stop torturing myself and just put it down. ( )
  denniharbaugh | Nov 24, 2021 |
This is a dramatically written account of a very high profile murder in a large middle class household in Wiltshire in 1860, which caused a nationwide sensation. A 3 year old boy, Francis Saville Kent, is found missing from his nursery and his body found stuffed down an outside privy, having been stabbed and possibly suffocated. Mr Whicher is one of the inaugural detectives appointed by Scotland Yard back in 1842 and now an experienced detective with a nuanced appreciation of the criminal mind, called in to investigate the crime. He attempts to identify the murderer and, in what is now a fictional detective cliche, antagonises the local police by coming up with different potential solutions. Almost every member of the Kent family and servants is suspected by someone or other of involvement. The main theories coalesce around an accidental death caused by the child catching his father Samuel Kent in bed with one of the servants, and murder of the child due to sibling jealousy on the part of Constance and possibly William Kent, 16 and 15 year old children of Samuel Kent by his first wife. Whicher favours the second explanation, and Constance is summoned before magistrates but there is not enough evidence for her to be committed to trial. The mystery remains unsolved.....until five years later when Constance confesses her guilt. There are still holes in her story and the public and press are reluctant to believe in the guilt of such a young woman, but she is tried and sentenced to death, though this is commuted to 20 years penal servitude after a national outcry. Constance was released after her penal servitude and followed her brother William to Australia where she became a nurse and lived to see her 100th birthday under a false identity - though these facts were only found out by her descendants in the 1970s. This book is much more than just an account of this dramatic crime, it is also a history of crime and society in the mid 19th century and there is a lot of detail of other cases in which the highly esteemed Whicher was involved, and also comparisons with the growing literary genres of sensationalist and detective fiction during the 1850s and 60s, especially with Wilkie Collins, Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Inspector Bucket in Dickens's Bleak House. I thought the book sagged a bit in the middle and become a bit repetitive with the hammering home of some of these theories, but overall this was a fascinating read. ( )
  john257hopper | Apr 3, 2021 |
A meandering, uneven and poorly told story that had such wasted potential. This examination of a real-life murder mystery in Victorian England (1860s) is a defective detective story. Skip it. ( )
  Mona07452 | Oct 23, 2020 |
This was one of those books where what I wanted it to be wasn't quite what it was, which means I didn't enjoy it as much as I was hoping, but it was the fault of my expectations instead of the book itself. I found the parts of the book dealing with the Road House case very interesting, but was less excited when it focused more on Whicher himself and on the growing role of detectives in the investigation of crime in England.
  Tara_Calaby | Oct 3, 2020 |
First spoiler: I didn't finish reading the book. I didn't even get halfway through the book.

This book should be fascinating. It should be right up my alley. History? (The formation of Scotland Yard and birth of the detective.) Crime? (The shocking murder of a the youngest member of a wealthy family in early Victorian England.) Suspicious characters? (The questionable goings-on of the aforementioned wealthy family, and the rumors and secrets surrounding them.) It's all there--how can it be so freaking boring? This book is like taking a sleeping pill. When I try reading it at night, I can barely get through two pages.

The author spends a lot of time including text from early detective/crime literature, such as The Moonstone, and I'm not really sure what the point of this is. I'm not reading those books (yet--The Moonstone has been on my Want to Read list for some time); I'm reading this one. Yes, by all means, mention the fact that Whicher and the detectives of the newly-created branch and the inception of Scotland Yard inspired some of the first detective fiction ever written, but how does it help the narrative of this book to include passages from these fiction books, revolving around these fictional characters? I don't need to know about fictional inspector Bucket, unless Whicher is solving crimes by following the characters in these books (and if that's the case, then say so). I read some of them but then took to skipping the parts where she inserts parts from the books, because they were pointless and in my opinion did not advance the book at all. I can only assume that the author thought including this made it read more like a novel, but it totally missed the mark for me and I'd rather have a shorter book.

I'm also not sure why I need to know or care about the birthdate or place of some of the acquaintances of the Kent family (for instance, their doctor's DOB and place of birth, and a general description of where it is in comparison to the village, is provided). I don't care what the doctor looked like (at least in depth), so saying that he was "dark-haired, with full lips, a rounded nose and large brown eyes" does nothing for me. It was a little more interesting to learn that the doctor was friends with Dickens and was also friends with John Snow (who discovered the cause of cholera and is a founder of epidemiology). But again, I don't really care that he once lived briefly in the same area as detective inspector Whicher, nor that he was an avid gardener.

The book goes on tangents about related cases, or cases that are somehow related to what is being mentioned at the time (not from the book, but as an example: A family friend is mentioned, and the author could move into how there was a case Whicher worked with another 15-year-old girl or something). This wasn't a book about the history of the cases Whicher investigated, and while I wouldn't be opposed to reading a book about a different crime of his, I don't want to read about it here.

I think I'm finally giving up on this book and probably won't be picking it up again. Which bums me out, because I had really been looking forward to reading it! I really do want to know who killed Saville Kent; if Catherine Kent was truly the culprit, was convicted, or was let go and always suspected; if the family remained as insular as they had been, or if they felt the need to set up house elsewhere; and how this case lead to the end of Jonathan Whicher's career. Instead, I'm going to have to either find a detailed article (here I come, Wikipedia) or a more interesting, engrossing book about Whicher that doesn't spend a quarter of the book diverting into completely unnecessary anecdotes. This one is going on my Unfinished shelf, rather than continue to haunt me as a book I'm reading; it was a struggle from early on, and there's no sense in reading a book that feels like a slog and that I'm not enjoying. ( )
  AeshaMali | Aug 9, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 155 (next | show all)
The case has been discussed many times, and Summerscale turns the spotlight on the detective. This would be interesting if she knew more about him, but the material is so threadbare that Whicher cannot buy a railway ticket without our being given a description of Paddington Station. Yet she omits crucial information about the ill-treatment of Constance's brother.
 
More important, Summerscale accomplishes what modern genre authors hardly bother to do anymore, which is to use a murder investigation as a portal to a wider world. When put in historical context, every aspect of this case tells us something about mid-Victorian society,
 

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kate Summerscaleprimary authorall editionscalculated
Brown, SteveCover photosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clays LimitedPrintersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mann, DavidCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Do you feel an uncomfortable heat at the pit of your stomach, sir? and a nasty thumping at the top of your head? Ah! not yet? It will lay hold of you...I call it the detective-fever.
From The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins
Dedication
To my sister, Juliet
First words
This is the story of a murder committed in an English country house in 1860, perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time.
Quotations
Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional -- to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then solve the puzzle, to make it go away. 'The detective story,' observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, 'is a tragedy with a happy ending.'
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In June of 1860 three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outdoor privy with his throat slit. The crime horrified all England and led to a national obsession with detection, ironically destroying, in the process, the career of perhaps the greatest detective in the land, Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. Whicher quickly believed the unbelievable--that someone within the family was responsible for the murder of young Saville Kent. Without sufficient evidence or a confession, though, his case was circumstantial and he returned to London a broken man. Though he would be vindicated five years later, the real legacy of Jonathan Whicher lives on in fiction: the tough, quirky, knowing, and all-seeing detective that we know and love today ... from the cryptic Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone to Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade.--From publisher description.

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Book description
Recounts the events surrounding the 1830 murder of three-year-old Saville Kent and explores the police investigation into the crime, which led to family members becoming prime suspects, while local residents began to doubt the efficiency of the lead investigator as the crime went unsolved for years.

Contents:

To see what we have got to see -- The horror and amazement -- Shall not God search this out? -- A man of mystery -- Every clue seems cut off -- Something in her dark cheek -- Shape-shifters -- All tight shut up -- I know you -- To look at a star by glances -- What games goes on -- Detective-fever -- A general putting of this and that together by the wrong end -- Women! Hold your tongues! -- Like a crave -- Better she be mad -- My love turned -- Surely our real detective liveth -- Fairy-lands of fact -- The music of the scythe on the lawn outside.
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HighBridge

An edition of this book was published by HighBridge.

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