I had heard about and read an article about the strange and gruesome murder of a young boy which took place in the village of Rode in Somerset one summer’s night in 1860; Saville Kent was only three when he was taken from his cot in the nursery where his nursemaid slept nearby, taken to the outside privy (toilet) where his mutilated body was found the next day. There were elven people in the house that night, including the boy’s parents, Samuel and Mary, his half-siblings, Mary-Ann, Elizabeth, Constance and William, and his little sisters, Mary Amelia and Evaline. There were also several servants sleeping in the house; other servants went to their own homes in the village.
The dreadful murder hit the headlines and a detective from London, Jonathan Whicher was sent to investigate and the country was gripped by the mystery; who had killed the innocent child so brutally and stuffed him into the cesspit beneath the privy, and why? Why would anyone want to, what motive could anyone have? The murder and the press interest may have triggered the interest in detectives, crime and investigation, which has grown and grown ever since, from novels, and the written word, to film, TV, and games. The crime genre is one of the most popular, and I enjoy TV series such as ‘Boomtown’, ‘Silent Witness’, ‘The Killing’, and reading police procedurals … but they are fiction, this was a real murder of a real little boy.
Kate Summerscales has written an account, a very full account of the murder, investigation, solution and conclusion in ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. her book is three hundred pages long, has a fourteen page introduction and prologue, seventy page afterword,postscript, notes,bibliography and index as well as maps and illustrations. You can tell it is a very complete book… in fact it covers everything you cloud possible imagine or want; the state of the harvest, what the newspapers said at the time, court reports, Mr Whicher’s biography and his other cases, and that of the other policeman involved, contemporary novels and stories about murder, family histories… research, conjecture,… there is just so much!
There is so much in this book, and in a way there is too much… I felt like saying “Oh for goodness sake, Kate, just get on with it!” I can’t criticise it for style or skill or the detail which she has included, but it just overwhelms the reader. She offers a solution, the accepted verdict at the time, she offers an explanation for the crime, and she follows the characters to the end of their lives… but I just wish it had been slimmed down, it all fell a little flat, it was all a little… dare I say turgid?
It is certainly fascinating, and I know many people think it’s an amazing study of a tragic incident in an ordinary family’s life and what ensued, so I would recommend it… but with quite a few reservations!