|Page 12||Book Reviews Non-Fiction||June 2008|
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Some of the Players in the story
By Alidė Kohlhaas
We almost instinctively believe that the criminal mind rests in society's lower classes. We joke about it by stating that "The butler did it," whenever an as yet unsolved mystery arises. But why do we say this? For an answer we can go back only about 150 years, to 1860. Author Kate Summerscale has written an absorbing, detailed account of a murder that held Victorian England in its thrall. Her retelling of the killing of four-year-old Francis Savil Kent in her book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - A Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, reveals how class prejudices led the local Wiltshire police to point the finger at the child's lowly nursemaid as the culprit and so overlooked or destroyed vital clues.
Two weeks after the still unsolved murder, orders came to detective inspector Jonathan Whicher to take over the gruesome, baffling case. At the time he practiced a fairly new profession. He belonged to the original Scotland Yard (Metropolitan Police, London) group of eight detectives formed in 1842 to investigate crime. Among his fellows and in the public's mind, Whicher had an excellent reputation. One of his colleagues referred to him as "the prince of detectives."
Despite Victorian England's fascination with crime, it disliked that detectives put the lives of 'upstairs' on equal footing with 'downstairs'. It was fine to question the servants, but not the family of their employers. The Victorians liked their privacy and Scotland Yard's detectives made people feel ill at ease by going beyond the expected norms of shielding the upper classes from close inspection.
Today detectives have a huge arsenal to help them in their work. In Whicher's day a keen eye for detail, a good memory as well as an understanding of human nature supported by instinct were the detective's only tools. But even today's detectives still need Whicher's natural tools, aside from fingerprinting, DNA and forensic sciences. The modern tools are only there to confirm what detectives manage to assemble through legwork and observation, and an ability to put diverse things into a single picture.
Whicher, who had all of the above attributes but none of today's tools, came to the case when most of the vital evidence had been erased by the local constabulary. Although his presence had been requested by a local magistrate, he met with resistance from county police, who had set their minds on the nursemaid.
Whicher, after thorough investigation, came to a very different conclusion. Unfortunately, he could not prove his case conclusively, and this is how his reputation became undone. Dispirited by this failure and by that of a subsequent case, he retired from the Metropolitan Police in 1864 at the age of 49 with an annual pension of £133.6s.8d. His discharge papers gave as a reason for his early retirement that he suffered from 'congestion of the brain'. Had he waited another year, he would have seen his skills at detecting vindicated. His suspect finally admitted to the deed, and was brought to justice. Interestingly, while Whicher ferreted out every detail of those involved in a crime, little is known about him. He managed to keep such a low profile that not even a photograph can be found of him.
Summerscale skillfully leads the reader not only into the case but also into the historical background of policing, of social attitudes, and of family politics of the period. And she reveals how Whicher became the prototype for many a detective, starting with Wilkie Collins' Sgt. Cuff in The Moonstone. He proved to be the inspiration for the mystery stories that included Sherlock Holmes, and much later the likes of Philip Marlowe, Lt. Columbo, and Inspectors Barnaby, Wycliffe, Rebus, Tennison and Morse, to mention a few. Dickens is said to have been inspired by Whicher to write The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a book left unfinished because the author died.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher reads like a mystery novel. Summerscale created a first-rate biography of the murder case, the murderer(s?) and a detective, who had the skills, but not the necessary weapons, to confirm his conclusions. It is vividly rendered through a well-researched background of the crime, a detailed look at the victim's family, and at all those involved in the crime and its investigation. She captures the atmosphere of Victorian England so brilliantly that she binds the reader to the pages of her book from beginning to end.
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