I’ve been re-watching CSI during the continued lock-down. It’s an old favorite, even though there are some things that make me roll my eyes after so many months listening to true crime podcasts. (DNA results within a day? Forensic analysts interviewing people? Please.) In addition to providing great background noise, CSI has also provided an interesting counterpoint to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale. This book has been on my to-read list for ages and I noticed one night while scrolling through the online listings by my local public library that it was available. The book details the shocking murder of Francis Saville Kent, aged 3, in 1860. When compared to the high tech possibilities of current criminal investigation, how on earth was it possible for a police detective to try and solve a case at a time when fingerprints were unknown?
On the night of June 29-30, 1860, Francis Saville Kent was taken from his crib in a room he shared with his younger sister and governess, had his throat cut, and was placed in the vault of the outhouse. There was very little evidence to on. All Detective Jack Whicher had to go on, once he was summoned from London to Road in Wiltshire, was an upper middle class family who weren’t talking, a scrap of bloody newspaper, and a missing nightgown that belonged to the murdered boy’s older half-sister, Constance.
If the case had happened in our era, samples would be taken from throughout Road Hill House. Fingerprint dust would be scattered everywhere. The family and servants would be asked for their DNA and fingerprints for comparison purposes. All Whicher had at the time were interviews. He talked to everyone in Road Hill House and something about Constance Kent struck him as wrong, so Whicher kept digging. Whicher started to talk to Constance’s school friends, looking for a motive, because he was sure that Constance had killed her brother.
While she details Whicher’s investigation and the subsequent legal wranglings, Summerscale dives into the world of Victorian detection. She explores fictional and actual detectives, and the tension between their popularity (true crime fans are nothing new) and the repulsion the public felt at detectives rooting out the skeletons in everyone’s closets. Summerscale even discusses Victorian language as words like “hunch” came to be associated with detectives. This last might sound boring but having Summerscale explain Victorian innuendo was extremely helpful. For example, knowing that when Victorians describe a relationship as “close,” what they really meant was secretive.
I was fascinated by The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. In addition to being a great piece of true crime writing (Summerscale clearly did a ton of research for this book), it’s a brilliant example of social history. I definitely recommend this to fans of crime history, especially ones who read a lot of current true crime. Taking a look 160 years back had me thinking about what has changed and what hasn’t. While we rely on DNA and physical evidence to clinch cases, we still put a lot of stock in confessions and eyewitness statements. We love a good detective—until it looks like they might be wrong and are harassing someone who has been judged innocent in the court of public opinion. One thing that definitely hasn’t changed is our desire, even if we’re not in law enforcement ourselves, to try and figure out whodunit.