the observer Sun 01 February 2009
The savage killing of a child. A dysfunctional family. A celebrity detective. A fervid press. The kind of unsolved murder that captivates a nation and leads to endless analysis around the office water cooler. Except that this was a crime committed in 1860 and the water cooler had yet to be invented.
One of the reasons why Kate Summerscale's book has already become a non-fiction bestseller in hardback is that the murder of Saville Kent, aged three, resonates as clearly now as it did almost 150 years ago. Her skill lies in elegantly interweaving her themes into an old-fashioned whodunit.
If the murder had happened today, the headline writers may have dubbed the main players in the case "The Road Hill Eleven". Road Hill House was Saville's home, until, that is, his body was discovered, jammed into the latrine, his throat slashed. The only possible witnesses (and therefore suspects) were his father, mother, siblings and step-siblings, plus three members of household staff. The investigation that followed threatened everything the Victorian middle classes held dear.
When the local police admitted to being stumped, Scotland Yard decided to employ one of its newly invented band of policemen, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher. He is everything a crime aficionado might hope a plain-clothes copper would be: sharp-witted, keen-sighted, inspired; modest, dogged, misunderstood. Clearly Summerscale has a great deal of affection for her hero, a working-class man who captivated the likes of Charles Dickens and whose own career never recovered from the case.
Summerscale is by no means the first writer to examine the gruesome events that took place that night. However, what she brings to the tale is a compassion for her characters coupled with an ability to discourse on everything from the most notorious criminals of the day to the growing passion for the new genre of detective fiction. The result is an engrossing book that informs as well as moves. Whicher, honourable, diligent and ultimately maligned, would surely have approved.