Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Wicked Stepmother Strikes Again

The book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale deals with the shocking 1860 murder of a 3 year old boy, and the efforts of a determined detective to solve the case. The murder took place in the English village of Road (now Rode), in Somerset. The young boy was discovered in the privy with his throat cut. The household was typically Victorian middle-class and crowded with family (including grown children, teenagers, step-children, and infants) and servants (maids, cooks, gardeners, nurses, grooms, coachmen, charwomen and an "odd-job boy"). In other words, there was no shortage of suspects.

Enter our hero, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Mr. Whicher did a very thorough job of investigating the case, and came to the conclusion that the culprit was likely the 16 year old daughter of the household, Constance Kent. However, due to the massive press interest in the case, and the fact that it was unthinkable that a young girl of previously spotless character could commit such a horrific act, Mr. Whicher was called back to London. He was vilified in the press and lost the confidence and respect of his colleagues. Although Constance was arrested, because of a lack of evidence and disbelief on the part of nearly everyone, she was released and the case went cold.

This is a very well-known case, and no spoilers are involved when I tell you that after joining a convent, Constance became convinced that she should repent her previous sins. In 1865 she turned up at a police station and confessed that she, unaided, was responsible for the murder of her young brother. After a 20 minute trial, at which she pleaded guilty, she was sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life (20 years) in prison. She stated that her motive was a hatred of her step-mother, who had originally been the governess and had started an affair with Constance's father while his first wife was still alive (I was shocked, I tell you!). The murdered boy was the favorite of his mother, and Constance felt that she and her siblings from the first marriage were being pushed aside in favor of the new family. Naturally, Mr. Whicher was vindicated in the end, but he didn't really seem to benefit from having his suspicions confirmed. After his retirement from the police force, he worked as a private investigator.

The interesting aspect of the book for me, other than the case itself, was the way the author was able to document the societal effects that the case had. Not only was the case a national sensation in the press, but it also marked the beginning of public fascination with lurid murder cases, detectives, and murder mysteries. The case spawned numerous fictional treatments, including "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins, "Lady Audley's Secret" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" by Charles Dickens. Those and other stories might not have included actual aspects of the Kent case, but each was undeniably influenced by the events surrounding the true-life murder.

Final Verdict for The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Three Gherkins, for integrating many interesting topics (true crime, mystery fiction, private investigation) in one fascinating book

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