Call me stupid but I had no clue that this was non-fiction. I had sort of browsed through its review on Danielle’s blog and it seemed intriguing enough. It was only when I was some 20 odd pages into the books I realized that it was based on true events. Written by Kate Summerscale of the Daily Telegraph, this is the second book to chronicle, analyze and report the events that led to and followed the gruesome murder of Saville Kent, a four year old at Road Hill House in England. Written in a way that is comparable to murder mysteries, this book presents the evidence and sequence of events as they took place so that you are pushed to wear a detective’s hat and figure out for yourself what really happened.
Really the ingredients are all there – an old victorian house, pointless and motiveless murder of an innocent boy on the premises, appearances of an inside job, conflicting witness accounts, incompetent local police and the detective from Scotland Yard. Almost sounds like a British mystery novel, right? That brings me to the second key aspect of the book – the growth of detective literature and the influences of the Road Hill Murder on it. Who would have thought that a chronicle of an English murder would also be about literature ? I should have gotten the hint when the opening page states a quotation from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Summerscale, very knowledgably, ties the themes of the murder to what made the first of mystery/murder novels in England. Dickens, Collins, Braddon – the pioneers of the first detective novels were very active commentators in the Kent case and their stories and characters were heavily inspired from this one incident.
Summerscale often talks about how this murder forces one to look at the dark undercurrents of a “gentlemen’s” home. Victorian households by demands of society and etiquette could be repressive where gender inequality existed, social circle was strictly restricted to maintain class distinction and servants played an important part in the dynamics of the household. Take the scenario of the Kent house, Samuel Kent, re-married his governmess, soon after the death of his first wife, who was deemed mentally ill. Samuel and the new Mrs. Kent then proceeded to have children of their own to which they showed increasing partiality. All the four children of the first marriage felt the discrimination – but was it enough to incite them to murder their step-brother?
Now to Mr. Whicher – who is he? He was one of the first and finest detective of Scotland Yard. He was called to solve the murder at Road Hill. Summerscale points out that a “detective” was a new concept then and people did not appreciate anyone invading the privacey of an Englishman’s home to ask vulgar questions. By the role of their job, they were disliked. Though Whicher was no doubt a brilliant man, and proceeded in a systematic way, his solution to the case did not hold its weight in court. Whicher was disreputed and did not take up another case for quite some time till he was proven right.
As Summerscale chronicles the murder, she also talks about how “detecting” came into being, and its effect on popular culture. Whicher was apparently used as an inspiration for many a fictional detective.
As I read this book, at times reminded of Arther and George by Julian Barnes – there is no particular reason for it except that both these books are about true, apparently unsolvable cases and dealt with crimes of insanity. I was mostly impressed with Summerscale’s research and her ability to tie in the themes of those times. However, there was something about the writing or maybe the editing that wasn’t quite right. The flow of the chapters and even the flow of the paras on a page was not smooth – Summerscale jumped time, characters and locations and sometimes it would just break your train of thought as you read along.
I have intentionally avoided all details to the mystery with suspects and theories because I dont want to take the intrigue of the book if you chose to read. Which I would recommened highly.