Painstaking but never boring recreation of a sensational 1860 murder brings to shivering life the age of the Victorian detective.
The Road Hill case served as fodder for the emerging detective genre taken up with relish by such authors as Dickens, Poe and Wilkie Collins. It perplexed detectives at the time and was resolved five years after the deed—and then only partially and unsatisfactorily, avers British journalist and biographer Summerscale (The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water, 1997, etc.). She models this engaging true-crime tale on the traditional country-house murder mystery, packed with secretive family members moving about with hidden motives in a commodious old manor house. On June 30, 1860, in the Wiltshire village of Road, three-year-old Saville Kent was removed in the dead of night from his cot in the room he shared with his nursemaid, suffocated, stabbed and dumped in the privy outside the kitchen. In addition to his parents, Samuel and Mary Kent, the inhabitants of Road Hill House included numerous servants and Samuel’s four children from his previous marriage, each harboring various grievances since their mother’s untimely death. After the local constable made a mess of the investigation, authorities called in Scotland Yard’s “prince of detectives,” Jonathan Whicher, then at the height of his career at age 45. The author dispassionately presents highlights from the record of Whicher’s interviews with servants and family members, allowing readers to fill in the blanks much as the detective had to do. On largely circumstantial evidence, he arrested Samuel’s 16-year-old daughter Constance, but she was soon released, and the press ridiculed Whicher for accusing an innocent girl. In 1865, however, she confessed to the crime and after a sensational trial served a 20-year prison sentence. Summerscale pursues the story over decades, enriching the account with explanations of the then-new detective terminology and methods and suggesting a convincing motive for Constance’s out-of-the-blue confession.
A bang-up sleuthing adventure.