The suspicious detective in the nineteenth century

As a break from marking essays, I’ve been reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I’d seen it in bookshops but probably wouldn’t have read it if a friend hadn’t lent it to me, but I’m glad I did – it’s fascinating by any standard, but pa%7B21A84AA6-448F-4FE7-8546-E156A706BA29%7DImg100rticularly so for someone with an interest in the nineteenth century. It’s based on the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy at Road Hill House in Somerset in 1860; I’d expected it to be somehow “novelised” – to read like sensation fiction, but it doesn’t; it’s a factual account with little unnecessary detail, which makes it somehow all the more compelling.

Summerscale’s research has clearly been extremely extensive; she tells the story, of the child’s murder and the enquiries into the death, but there’s much more to it than that. For example, I didn’t know that the first proper detective in fiction appeared in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (I thought there must have been an earlier precedent for this), and that the first detective force was set up in Britain eight years after this. The detective in the Road Hill murder was Jack Whicher, a prominent detective of the day, whose case notes Summerscale has consulted. This book is as much about the construction of the figure of the detective, in the press, in society, and in literature, as it is about the investigation and social implications of the murder case.

What is fascinating about this book is twofold: firstly, I really wanted to know “whodunit” – and usually that kind of thing doesn’t matter too much to me. Secondly, it’s what it reveals about mid-Victorian life. The details – both cosily domestic and surprisingly sordid – of life at the house are laid out before the reader, as, it turns out, they were at the time; this was one of the highest-profile murder cases of the time. Every detail was analysed in the press; everyone had an opinion, and the Whicher received thousands of letters suggesting possible murderers and offering information. The public was both intrigued and fully absorbed, becoming armchair-detectives themselves, and at the same time absolutely horrified about the intrusion into the private domestic space which seemed paramount to a threat to national security. Of course, the voyeurism of the nineteenth century press is ironically echoed by that of the reader of this book.

When Whicher made an accusation, he was vilified for calling the family into disrepute, as a lower-class working detective who had “intruded” on the middle-class security of the bereaved family. The paradoxes and hypocrisy the case, and this book, illuminates is fascinating; I was also surprised by how much effect this and other real-life cases had on contemporary writers, in particular (of course) Dickens and Wilkie Collins. One wonders what future generations might make of the news stories that capture the current generation’s interest.

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2 thoughts on “The suspicious detective in the nineteenth century

  1. I’d be curious to hear more about the effect of this on Dickens. Could you post something about this?

  2. Yes, Kate Summerscale’s comments on the effect on Dickens are very interesting. Apparently Dickens knew Whicher – though not well, I think – and the author claims that Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, for example, is based on Whicher’s boss, Charley Field, but adds “Bucket was reminiscent of Jack Whicher, too” (p53). There are comments on the impact that these detectives had on Dickens and Collins throughout the book. Summerscale also reports comments by Dickens about Field and Whicher, but I can’t work out where they were published or if they were comments in a diary or letters, perhaps. She certainly asserts a far-reaching effect of the murder case in fiction of the period, anyway.

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