The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

October 18, 2009 at 9:08 pm (Book clubs, books, Crime, History, Uncategorized)

jwhicher I confess I approached last Tuesday night’s discussion with a certain diffidence. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher presents such an array of complex issues, I doubted I could do the book justice. But – doubts were vanquished almost as soon as we began. I have the incredible good luck to be associated with The Usual Suspects, a gratifyingly brainy group of people who brought their impressive intellects to bear full force upon Kate Summerscale’s many-layered, remarkable narrative. (Click here to read my original review of  this book. Also, be warned: this post contains spoilers.)

I began our discussion  by a reading a passage from the introduction:

“A Victorian detective was a  secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. In a newly uncertain world, he offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes – the vestiges of the beast in man – into intellectual puzzles. But after the investigation at Road Hill the image of the detective darkened. Many felt that Whicher’s inquiries culminated in a violation of the middle-class home, an assault on privacy, a crime to match the murder he had been sent to solve….

That paragraph in its entirety summed up many of the issues explored by the author in this book.

I next asked everyone to look at the Kent family tree. Several of the birth and dates there given serve as a sobering reminder of how prevalent infant death still was, even in the mid-nineteenth century in a progressive Western country.

I then went on to provide some biographical information on Kate Summerscale.  This Wikipedia entry pretty much sums up what I was able to find. In addition, here is an interview with the author:

Then it was time to look at the murder itself, and the context in which it took place. When I asked what emotion this core aspect of the book evoked, someone immediately responded, “horror.” Everyone agreed at once. It seemed an especially heinous crime, compounded as it was of cool calculation and unimaginable rage. As Summerscale puts it, concerning the weeks that followed the grisly revelation :

“The puzzle of the Road Hill case lay in the killer’s peculiar combination of heat and cold, planning and passion. Whoever had murdered, mutilated and defiled Saville Kent must be horribly disturbed, possessed by unnaturally strong feelings: yet  the same person, in remaining so far undiscovered, had shown startling powers of self-control.

The author concludes this paragraph by pointing out that “Whicher took Constance’s cold quiet as a clue that she had killed her brother.” And though he was made to pay dearly for it, he was exactly right to do so.

We all agreed that this book was greatly enriched by the frequent allusions to works that were seminal in the evolution of the detective fiction genre. Some time ago, the suspects had discussed The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, so it was particularly enjoyable to encounter this great writer once again, in this context. Collins coined the phrase “detective fever,” declaring that Charles Dickens had a bad case of it where the Road Hill House crime was concerned.

Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone are both to some extent modeled on the real life character of Jonathan Whicher. Another novel mentioned in connection with the Road Hill House case is Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. When I first read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, I was intrigued by the mention of this title. It was a book – and author – which rang only the faintest of bells for me, dating from my English major days at Goucher College and Georgetown University. I then tried to read it, but got bogged down in the rather protracted description of Audley Court with which the novel begins.

This time, after completing my second traversal of Summerscale’s book, I decided yet again to read Lady Audley. And a strange thing happened:I was mesmerized by this novel! Once past that slow-moving opening passage, I found myself completely engrossed in a genuinely fascinating story. It was hard for me to believe I that a work of such positively juicy readability was originally published in 1862. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, you sorceress – where have you been all my life?  audley

Lady Audley’s Secret is the exemplar of a genre known as the novel of sensation. Attaining great popularity in the 1860’s and 1870’s, such works aimed to jolt the reader by turning certain staid Victorian conventions on their collective heads, and by dealing deliberately in shocking subject matter, such as “adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder” (Wikipedia). Well gosh, no wonder that was so much fun!

To a considerable extent, novels of sensation were the forerunners of the detective story, so they should naturally be of interest to those of us who are ardent readers of crime fiction. Kate Summerscale advances the possibility that “…the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional…[is] to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away.”  Summerscale goes on to quote Raymond Chandler to the effect that “The detective story…is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Our group kicked this provocative observation around a bit. IMHO, this is Chandler speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. This is, after all, the man who wrote, at the conclusion of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.

No happy ending there ( though the writing itself is stunning.) Summerscale’s theory, on the other hand, has real merit.

I’ll have more to say about Lady Audley’s Secret in a later post. But first: more on the book under consideration Tuesday night.

As with much sensation fiction, madness runs as a dark undercurrent throughout Kate Sumerscale’s narrative. The Kent family was a blended one, comprising Samuel Kent’s children by his first wife, Mary Ann Windus, and those he fathered subsequently by Mary Drewe Pratt.

Samuel Kent

Samuel Kent

Mary Ann Windus was a sad case. Married to Samuel Kent in 1829 at the age of twenty-one, she became repeatedly pregnant. Out of a total ten live births, only five children survived infancy. When still young, Mary Ann purportedly showed signs of ‘weakness and bewilderment of intellect.’ The repeated pregnancies and infant deaths she had to endure can only have made matters worse.

Also unhelpful was the introduction into the household of Mary Drewe Pratt as governess to Constance, who was born in 1844. Pratt, an apparently imperious presence on the domestic scene, disparaged and marginalized Mary Ann Windus. The latter finally died in 1852. A year later, Samuel Kent married Mary Drewe Pratt. Proving to be just as fecund as her predecessor, Pratt gave birth to three children in quick succession. Francis Saville, born in 1856, was the murder victim in 1860.

The initial revelations concerning the murder caused a kind of feeding frenzy among members of the public and the press. Jack Whicher obstinately insisted that Constance Kent was the culprit, but his methods were blunt and ham handed, and he lacked any convincing evidence. People found another theory more compelling; namely, that Samuel Kent and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, were lovers and had been observed in flagrante by little Saville. Gough slept in the same room with the younger children and was present when Saville was taken from his bed. Although she insisted that she had slept through the abduction, neither seeing nor hearing anything, she nevertheless made an attractive suspect.

In the short term, no further compelling evidence appeared. No breakthrough was achieved. The hubbub gradually died down.  Whicher,  his investigative techniques and seemingly arbitrary conclusions thoroughly vilified by both the press and the public at large, slunk back to London. The public’s attention was diverted to other matters. (Whicher stayed with the police force for several more years. After retiring from the force, he became a private “agent of inquiry,” a career path similar to that of Anne Perry’s fictional protagonist William Monk. It’s also worth noting that amid the general disapproval, Whicher did have his defenders.)

Jonathan Whicher

Jonathan Whicher

Then, in 1865, Constance Kent came forward and confessed to the murder of her step-brother.  Her initial explanations in regard to her motive tended to be murky and contradictory. Ultimately, however, it emerged that Constance was possessed of a great animus toward her stepmother. Mary Drewe Pratt had sewn a huge resentment in the bosom of Mary Ann Windus’s daughter by denigrating and ultimately seeking to replace her own mother. To make matters worse, Pratt displayed blatant favoritism toward the children she and Samuel had together. With Saville’s murder, she seems to have reaped the fruits of her own actions. If her sole aim was to secure Samuel Kent for her husband and thereby make a place for herself among the middle classes of nineteenth century England, she achieved her goal, but at a terrible price.

Constance Kent

Constance Kent

When it became known that Constance had confessed of her own free will, the question arose as to whether she, like her mother, suffered from “the taint of madness.” How else to account for an adolescent girl’s commission of such a terrible act? In recent years, the theory has surfaced that the real trouble – or at least, the medical trouble – in the Kent family was caused by Samuel’s having had syphilis, and having passed the infection on to Mary Ann Windus. Among its other scourges, this disease can cause early infant death and mental instability. Men were extremely reluctant to seek medical help for this particular ailment, or even to admit to be suffering from it.

At any rate, Summerscale advances this theory cautiously, warning that “Syphilis is an affliction easy to suspect in retrospect.”

We talked about the strange lack of emotion displayed by members of the Kent family. Samuel is reported to have been seen weeping at one point, but we are not told of any other demonstrative displays. This is perhaps understandable in the context in which the crime occurred. First of all, Summerscale could report on only what was supported by written testimony. And this was an era in which people – especially those belonging to the upper classes –  were taught to reign in their emotions.

The one member of the Kent family to whom Constance felt genuinely close was her brother William. Indeed, several years before the murder, the two had attempted to run away to sea. Some commentators on the crime believe that it would have been impossible for Constance alone to have abducted and killed Saville. She must, in other words, have had an accomplice. Was that accomplice William? Proof positive of this has never been found. Many, though, consider it to be highly likely. Our group was of that opinion. We felt it likely that Constance deliberately “took the rap” for the crime, insisting that she acted alone. This admission effectively lifted the cloud of guilt from other members of the Kent family. Constance would have been especially keen to have William no longer suspected of complicity. And in fact, William went on to enjoy a distinguished career in microscopy and marine biology.

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

William Saville-Kent, in the 1880's

As we discussed this outcome, Pauline put this question to us: in the matter of the murder of Saville Kent, was justice done? The group’s consensus: in the main, it was not. Constance Kent did serve a 20-year prison term, but she was still only 41 years old upon her release. Assuming the name Ruth Emilie Kaye, she emigrated to Australia, where she received training as a nurse. She never married and spent the remainder of her life in service to others. And it was a very long life: Constance Kent, aka Ruth Emilie Kaye, died in 1944 at the age of 100. Her obituary mentions that at one time, she nursed lepers.

It would appear  that Constance was trying to make restitution for her crime to society. Did she achieve this? It’s a subjective question, one that can never be answered conclusively. (And the same question could be asked of the aforementioned Anne Perry.) Even if one wishes to concede that a good faith effort was made here – What, then, about William Kent? His role in the events at Road Hill House was never proven and remains a matter for speculation. As an adult, he was free to live a full and productive life.

From the question of justice in this particular instance, our discussion widened to include the issue of the death penalty. It was necessary to tread carefully here, as people have strong opinions on this issue, but I thought our group handled that part of the discussion with admirable tact and diplomacy. I observed that Britain had come a long way since the day when executions were a form of public spectacle. Pauline, our “token Brit,” told us about the John Christie and Derek Bentley cases. Both involved wrongful execution; the ensuing revulsion proved instrumental in the decision to abolish capital punishment in the UK.

Several of us had read “Trial by Fire,” an article in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker concerning the possible wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. (At one point in this article, author David Grann recounts the following case from British history:

“In the summer of 1660, an Englishman named William Harrison vanished on a walk, near the village of Charingworth, in Gloucestershire. His bloodstained hat was soon discovered on the side of a local road. Police interrogated Harrison’s servant, John Perry, and eventually Perry gave a statement that his mother and his brother had killed Harrison for money. Perry, his mother, and his brother were hanged.

Two years later, Harrison reappeared. He insisted, fancifully, that he had been abducted by a band of criminals and sold into slavery. Whatever happened, one thing was indisputable: he had not been murdered by the Perrys.

This was the famous Campden Wonder, which I first heard of from our seemingly omniscient Smithsonian tour guide, Ros Hutchinson.)

We talked about other high profile murder cases in which justice has proved elusive. We’ve all had the experience of learning of a verdict or a sentence and exclaiming in disbelief: How could they? or words to that effect. What is the answer to this perennial question? Mine is that just as human beings are hard wired to want to solve puzzles, so are we equally hardwired to yearn for justice – and to keep up the relentless effort to see that justice is served.


Kate Summerscale won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.


  1. StephanJade said,

    Great post you got here. It would be great to read a bit more concerning that matter.

  2. barbara seboda said,

    In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, the author quotes from an article in the Morning Post, July 10, 1860, which speaks of the home as a sacred place. The author goes on to say that in Victorian England this was a strong sentiment: “Every man’s house is his castle.” I’ve been reading Little Pink House (by Jeff Benedict) for an “eclectic reading” class. It is a non-fiction book that deals with the famous eminent domain case in New London CT that resulted in private homes being taken by private developers. There I learned that the statement “A man’s house is his castle” was penned by a 17th century English jurist, Sir Edward Coke. The second part of his quote was in Latin, and reads: “and where should a man be safe if it be not in his own house?” How very apropos the quote is to both books (in different ways, of course).

  3. Dudley Sharp said,

    Cameron Todd Willingham: Media meltdown & the death penalty:”Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”, by David Grann–the-death-penalty.aspx

    Other articles on the Cameron Todd Willingham case

  4. Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] in the past, only two of  our ten selections were clearly  historical: A Free Man of Color and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (the latter being nonfiction). There followed a discussion of what actually constitutes historical […]

  5. At a meeting of the Usual Suspects: Simenon/Maigret, and other matters… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a crucial role in the mid-nineteenth century murder investigation described in such vivid detail in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Crooked House will definitely be the next Agatha Christie novel that I read. […]

  6. Debbie said,

    Fantastic summary and critique of the book. I’ve just finished reading it and glad to see your blog here is still live! I’ve never been interested in reading crime and detection novels but now I’ve been piqued, thanks to Ms Summerscale and your posting here 🙂

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment, Debbie. Appreciation like yours is what keeps me going in this often demanding undertaking.

  7. Debbie said,

    Your welcome! Keep up the good work (or is it play?!)

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Well – no, not play, exactly. But rewarding work, when gracious folks like yourself take the time to praise my efforts!

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