The suspicions of Mr Whicher and the birth of the mystery genre

The first English country house mystery did not arise from the fertile brain of a writer.

In 1860, Saville Kent, a small boy from a seemingly content middle-class family, was murdered and his body hidden down a garden outhouse. The case made national headlines. It inspired Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and others to write about the field of detection, and create the English mystery genre. Kate Summerscale revists the Road Hill murder in The suspcions of Mr Whicher, using the conventions of the genre it ignited.

Her book can be enjoyed as an intellectual puzzle, like its modern descendants, but it has extra layers of interest. Interwoven with the capture of the murderer of Saville Kent are a commentary on the development of the idea of detection in English society, and a piercing analysis of middle-class English life in the Victorian period.

Summerscale’s hero, DI Whicher, was one of the first eight Scotland Yard detectives. He was called in days after the murder, with the crime scene compromised and critical evidence lost. He was opposed not just by the family members of the dead child, who had secrets and feared scandal, but by his society as well.

It was clear to Whicher that the murderer was most likely one of the members of the family, but public opinion could not accept such a thing as possible. It saw his prying into the lives of the family as an intrusion. He was a working class man, disturbing his betters. He was not what they thought a proper detective should be: a cool and detatched figure of pure intellect seeking obscure facts to bring order back into a disturbed world. He was instead a dedicated officer who worked for a living, seeking motives for murder behind the facade of domesticity so valued by his contemporaries.

This excellent book is rich in period detail, contains a satisfying puzzle, and is filled with curios for those of us interested in the birth of the genre of mystery fiction, and in the evolution of the process of detection as a science.

The publisher has an almost spoiler free website, which includes the first chapter in pdf format.

Allen and Unwin. the Australian publishers have issued a discussion guide for book groups, which considers the motivations of the killer and so gives the ending away.