A shocking murder occurred at Road in 1860. A little boy, Francis Saville Kent, was whisked from his bed in the middle of the night, and only found the next day with his throat cut, shoved down a privy and wrapped in a blanket from his bed. At the same time, a fever for investigation and detection has swept the country and every man and woman is intent on solving the crime, blaming everyone from Saville’s father to the nursemaid to the neighbors. When the local police fail to turn up anything, Jonathan Whicher is called in, a detective from London. His conclusions shock Victorian sensibilities, however, and he falls from grace, though the book continues to unravel the mystery in his absence.
In addition to solving the crime and proposing some final solutions to the mysteries involved, Summerscale also provides us with a very interesting cultural and social study of the mid to late nineteenth century. In detail, she describes the detective fervor, early crime cases, their influence on literature, and how the great Whicher himself inspired such literary figures as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. This is easily the most interesting part of the book. The mystery feels solved one third of the way in, although the public isn’t convinced and it isn’t fully unravelled yet, but the interesting effect it has on the English view of detectives is certainly the best part of the book and worth reading just for that. In addition, Summerscale puts forth the new view of the middle-class home as a place of privacy and demonstrates how this case tore it wide open, making us realize just why Whicher’s conclusions were so objectionable. The effect of newspapers on all of this is striking and detailed.
The narrative flows along smoothly for the most part and doesn’t get boring or drag. There are some parts that don’t fit, in particular details of William’s biological work are simply dull and don’t reflect any of the book’s greater qualities, but they are few and mostly towards the conclusion of the book. The conclusion itself gets very interesting as Summerscale enters into her most interesting speculations about the true nature of the crime and the Kent family, so it is most certainly worth going through.
In the end, this was a really interesting read. Very informative and entertaining. I’m glad I read it and I’d recommend it to someone else, particularly someone interested in Victorian literature or history.