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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House
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363 of 389 people found the following review helpful
on 11 April 2008
This book is as much a history of Victorian social values and the emerging field of detective fiction in the nineteenth century as it is a book about a hideous country house murder in 1860. Researched using original police papers from the National Archives, books on the crime and many more sources, the book tells the story of the Road Hill House murder of 1860, when a three year old boy was brutally slain by another occupant of his home. The book sets out to detail the case, from the original event to the investigation by Scotland Yard detective Jack Whicher, to the aftermath suffered by the entire family.

It's extremely well written and well researched, and even though there is little to add suspense considering anyone with an Internet connection can discover the identity of the murderer, Summerscale still manages to inject a certain air of tension into proceedings, drawing things out as they must have unfolded at the time. With a peculiar ability to grab your attention and hold it firmly, the book is difficult to put down, and a thoroughly fascinating read for anyone with an interest in detective fiction, real life crime or a historical period that throws up as many questions as it answers.

Highly recommended.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 5 October 2014
This is a example of what a true crime book should be, with one major exception - it makes a hard-done-to saint out of Jonathan Whicher. In fact it ignores all of Whicher's malfeasance in this case.

I have read many reviews that say there is far too much information about the sociological history of the time. From my point of view (as a lecturer in Forensic and Criminal Psychology, Criminology and Crime History) it is the awareness of the sociology of the time that makes understanding the crime clearer. You should not apply the sociological standards of today to 150 years ago, nor should you apply them to 10 years ago. If you truly want to understand the crime then you need to appreciate the historical context. This is one of the most difficult concepts to get a student of the genre to understand and it is something that the author has done well.

It is a very well researched, well written book, accurate to the known facts of the case - yet it ignores all the information available about the corruption and behaviour of Jonathan Whicher.

The murder of three year old Saville Kent in 1860 and its investigation by Scotland Yard detective Jonathan Whicher was the first "country house" murder and set the standard for the fictionalised versions to come.

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*** please note - there are spoilers below ***

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Jonathan "Jack" Whicher was a man of the old school - a man who would do or say anything to get the confession and/or the conviction - he was one of the original corrupt coppers.

He was renowned for his use of violence, threats of violence, threats against family, and the general manipulation of his chosen "guilty party" (his "suspects" were usually easy to manipulate because they were usually poor and uneducated) in order to get a confession.

When the confession wasn't forthcoming Whicher would walk into the courtroom say "I am Whicher of Scotland Yard and (s)he is guilty" and that was it - his word was taken and the poor soul would be sentenced to death. I have always wondered how many people (men, women and children) Whicher sent to the gallows (or to hard labour) knowing that he had the wrong person and that he had just lied on the stand to keep his 100% solved/conviction rate.

Yet when this little town in the countryside didn't fall to their knees in worship of the "great one", he became so frustrated and annoyed at how "backward" they were that he began insulting to those in authority to him. At one point suggesting that the head magistrate had been "sired by a pig".

Whicher walked into the room which had been appointed for the magistrate hearing and said his usual "I am Whicher of Scotland Yard and she [pointing out Constance Kent] is guilty of the murder of Saville Kent" only to be left stunned as he was told that he would be required to present evidence pointing to her guilt as his word was not enough.

A disbelieving Whicher rallied quickly.

Amongst the "evidence" he presented was:

- Whicher stated that Constance had disposed of clothing (a nightdress) which was blood stained. Asked where the blood stained clothing was, he was forced to admit that none had been found. This caused much muttered consternation with those who were present in the hall. It was later stated in the book that the local police chief had found the item and had disposed of it in order to bring disrepute upon Whicher - this is not true.

- A cloth had been found in the undergrowth on a dirt track. Whicher enquired what it was for and was told it was a cloth used by women who were menstruating. Whicher then jumped to the conclusion that this cloth must have belonged to Constance. There was no evidence to show it belonged to anyone in the Kent household, in fact, it could have belonged to absolutely any female in the district.

- Whicher then went on to tell the court that Constance was guilty because she had no morals and was a "loose woman" - when asked to put-up-or-shut-up he said that she was menstruating and that only sexually active women menstruate. The men present showed their disgust and derision at this statement by laughing and jeering at Whicher, but these men that Whicher was dealing with were mainly farmers and not the toffs from London who knew (or wanted to know) little about the ins-and-outs of feminine monthly activity.

- Whicher went as far as to suggest that Constance and her brother William were having an incestuous relationship and that this accounted for her menstruation. This was met with absolute outrage in the court.

- Whicher was questioned as to how Constance could have carried the child (along with the weapon) down stairs, out of the house and held him while slitting his throat. His response further shocked and infuriated the court room. Whicher stated that William must have been her "helper" during the murder of Saville because he was her lover and in her power.

Whicher was asked for proof of this and said "you have my word that it is so and that is enough".

Once again the room roared its absolute disgust and the magistrates stated that they were appalled that a "man of the law" would stoop to suggest such things without any proof. Even the press, which had supported the "great one" were turning on against him. One report stated that Whicher was grasping at straws and was saying anything just blacken the reputation of an innocent 15-year-old girl.

On went the questioning for over an hour.

Whicher had tried to find anything that would show Constance in a bad light. He had gone to her school and approached her teachers and her classmates, he even went to the grounds keepers to see if they had any gossip.

One of the young girls called to testify at the hearing was a school friend of Constance. Whicher stated that she had told him that Constance hated Saville and that she had repeatedly said she wished him dead.

When the girl took the stand she was asked "have you ever heard Constance say anything against her brother Saville?" To which she answered "no" and continued that "Constance was delighted to have a new brother to care for".

It was at this point that Whicher stood up and started to take over the questioning of the child. He towered over her and according to the record shouted at the child and was deliberately intimidating.

Whicher was a man who was not accustomed to being countered by a lawyer or even a judge. In fact Whicher was notorious for taking things into his own hands in a court room. If he thought that the prosecution was not forcing an issue enough or if things were not progressing fast enough he would step in and take over the questioning of the witnesses himself - something which would never be allowed in a court room in this day and age and it was something which was not allowed by the magistrate in that court room during that hearing. Whicher was told to sit down.

The magistrate asked if she had said what Whicher had told them. She said "yes" and when asked why she had said those things about Constance she told the court that Whicher had frightened and threatened her.

Whicher brought 2 other girls to the hearing to "testify" against Constance. Both girls withdrew their statements saying that Whicher had told them if they didn't say what he wanted them to he would have their families arrested. One of whom stated that she had been questioned by Whicher in her room, alone (there was no chaperone present), and that he had lost his temper with her and struck her across the face causing her "lip and nose to bleed and her eye to become blackened and swollen shut". The "matron" of the school testified to the girl's injuries.

While waiting on remand, Whicher had repeatedly visited Constance and threatened to have her father and brothers, William and Edward, arrested unless she confessed. He tried to frighten and intimidate her with threats of beatings and tales of what happened to girls like her in prison. He sunk so low as to promise that she would not go to prison if she confessed.

Whicher even brought her father in to talk her into confessing to save his reputation and business (as well as dressing a constable up as a priest in the hope that she would confess to him). Regardless of how little her father had done to intervene between his 2nd wife and his children (she was known to be violent to all the children including her own), Constance still loved him.

Constance, however, was stronger than they thought for a child of her age and she maintained her innocence.

The panel dismissed the charges against Constance and she walked free, back into the arms of her not-so-loving family and her father's care. This was, however, for a brief time as she was shipped off to a convent to become a nun. Whicher proclaimed this proof that the family believed she was guilty; others, who knew the family, said that the 2nd Mrs Kent had finally got her own way and had removed all 3 of the first wife's children from the household (Edward having run away to sea and died, and William who was shipped off to boarding school where he stayed and rarely came home).

So Constance was free, yet Whicher was not to be defeated. He still harassed Constance and her family at every opportunity. When William went to university Whicher contacted the institution telling them that William had assisted his sister to murder their brother and that he had done so due to the incestuous relationship. The university Dean, to whom the letter had been sent, contacted Scotland Yard in an attempt to discover whether or not the allegations in the letter he had received from Whicher were true. It was at this point, only a few weeks after the debacle of the magistrates hearing, that Whicher was "allowed" to "retire" from the force on health grounds. This stopped any further enquiry into Whicher's behaviour and removed his ability to use Scotland Yard to further his vendetta against Constance and her family.

When William gained employment Whicher contacted his employer with the same allegations (written as fact on stolen Scotland Yard headed paper) and William would be fired.

Whicher let it be known in London that, as far as he was concerned, Constance was guilty, but that the yokels in the village had let her go free, because they were too stupid to understand the "evidence" against her. Unfortunately for Whicher many people had read the coverage of the case and few believed him.

Whicher deteriorated into a fervent drunk (not that he had been teetotal beforehand) but even after his "resignation" he hounded Constance continually. Eventually Constance could take no more and with a promise from Whicher that he would stay away from her family (in particular William) she confessed - the deal was made in front of the convent's priest and it was his guilt at allowing this that made him publicly declare and acknowledge what had happened (but only after Whicher's death from alcohol related illness).

Whicher's technique of breaking down suspects in order to get confessions had taken a lot longer to work with Constance, but in the end it did work. She stood in the courtroom and was convicted, yet few believed that she was guilty.

Jonathan Whicher attempted to get his job back at Scotland Yard by claiming that he had been "dismissed" unfairly. His claims were met with as much derision as those he had originally made against Constance had.

I will point out now that there has never been any evidence to show that Constance Kent was the murderer of Saville Kent.

Looking at the family was easy (it is one of the first things you do - try to clear the household), as was picking on what he perceived to be a naïve and quiet girl who was despised by her step-mother (possibly one of the best examples of a "wicked stepmother" in history).

The stepmother was a woman who outwardly appeared caring but was in fact cold and cruel and couldn't wait to get rid of the offspring of her husbands first wife - even though she had been the housekeeper, then tutor and governess for the children, then finally lover of Mr Kent and had nursed Mr Kent's first wife when she became ill and died. The symptoms of her illness matching with antimony poisoning.

The future Mrs Kent definitely stood to gain a lot by the death of the first Mrs Kent, and by the removal of the children from the first marriage ... but the death of her own child? Well, it got rid of the unwanted children I suppose.

Mr Kent, however, is a more viable suspect. His 2nd wife had expensive tastes and a lack of understanding with regards to monetary control. His business was in a bad state - he had been "borrowing" money from the business to support his extravagant wife, he had pulled the children out of their expensive schools and had dismissed most of the servants. With his costly wife, 3 children from the first marriage, one from the second, one on the way and an inability to pay the local merchants for food and other supplies ... he could have easily reached the tipping point.

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*** End of Spoilers ***

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The author missed the opportunity to "open" the investigation to scrutiny, which is a shame as there were so many things that happened before, during and after the investigation to look at that raise questions about the murder and its investigation.

For example, Whicher ignored a window which had been forced open (the damage to frame was to the outside) and the footprints dirt which showed someone had entered there, saying with certainty that the killer came from within the household - yet he offered no reasoning for this conclusion.

Psychologically Whicher had become blinkered. He had come across a strong minded and educated teenage girl who had stood up to him and refused to be bullied or manipulated. This intelligent girl had annoyed at Whicher as her own knowledge and ability have allowed her to counter and question many of the things that he said and did. In doing so she had placed the target firmly on her own forehead and Whicher was loading the gun to fire.

When two strong minded people clash on opposite sides only one can win and in this case it was the highly corrupt Whicher.

One other thing that wasn't really made clear in the book is that defendants were not allowed to testify on their own behalf - they had to stand there and listen but could make no statement about their innocence (or guilt) to the court. So Constance would never have been able to say anything to support her claim of innocence or about the behaviour of Whicher towards her and her family.

I would have liked to have seen more honesty about the man, and less beatifying of one of the first corrupt coppers - other than that it is an interesting view of the Road Hill House murder case.
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142 of 158 people found the following review helpful
The murder of a young child which took place at Road Hill House, Wiltshire in 1860 captured the imagination of the public and turned everyone into amateur detectives. The perfect example of a country house murder with a finite amount of suspects also inspired writers of the time such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

'The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher' is structured so that first, we learn the details of the crime, then we learn about the investigation which leads on to what happened next and the author's own theory based on the evidence. To say this book is well-researched in something of an understatement; if someone goes through a toll road, we know how much they pay; if someone moves to London we find out who they lived next door to; if someone left a will, we find out exactly what they left and to whom. I'm sure this level of detail would be irritating to some, but I found it absolutely incredible!

The book is also interesting in giving us a taste of the time, the attitudes of the people, the ways in which the Police force was growing and how events were shaping literature.

This is an extraordinary achievement and engrossing throughout. I can't wait to see what she will come up with next!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 17 January 2014
The book covers the true, rather nasty and sad events of a 1850/60 murder in a English country house and provides a chronological revealing of the facts as they are discovered. There's a lot of information available on this case to give details of events from newspaper clippings, police reports and other sources. It also puts it into context of the time with other such crimes.

It's ghoulishly interesting to find out what happened and the ending is particularly interesting. Perhaps my own presumptions made me a bit disappointed overall as the title suggested to me an almost Poirot esqu solving of the case. This is added weight to by the initial, constant and rather annoying reference to detective fiction of the time * and how it was influence by this event and the detective. That and how popular the book was made me expect a bit more.

It is a fascinating case and the history of the parties involved is particularly interesting especially the later parts of the book but if you're expecting a Poriot or a Sherlock Holmes reveal leave this till you're lower on reading material.

* Be warned as the fiction referenced in this book often has its mysteries revealed without thought. If I remember correctly, the murderer in Bleak House is state with no warning. Other fiction is referenced and could have been spoiled too but I learnt to skip the bits discussing other stories. Moonstone, The Women in White, Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Alan Poe are referenced. This was doubly annoying as I read this so I could watch a BBC 4 Program that was reckless giving spoilers on fiction/fact I'd not read; including this book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 August 2013
"The Suspicions of Mr Whicher" details an investigation into a child murder which took place in 1860 at Road Hill House in Wiltshire. As the author Kate Summerscale makes clear from the start this was the first highly publicised 'who dunnit' style murder mystery to fascinate the press and the British public. This true life case became the original inspiration for every fictional detective novel written since.

Where this book is strongest is describing the details of the murder itself, the people involved and the investigation carried out by the detective Jack Whicher. It is an interesting case in itself, being a classic locked door mystery where you know that at least one member of the household committed the crime.

The background detail on the foundation of the Metropolitan Police detective service is fascinating. I especially liked the conflict of Victorian morality that objected to police officers being dressed in plain clothes and poking their noses into the affairs of respectable folk.

However, the actual substance of the murder and investigation only accounts for perhaps half of this book. The other half seemed to me to be no better than padding. False leads, eccentric amateur detectives and unnecessary background about those involved makes the narrative drag in places. The last few chapters of the book are especially tiresome as it describes the lives of the surviving family members far beyond any relevance to the murder case.

Although Kate Summerscale has obviously painstakingly reseached Victorian detective literature and does a good job of referring to this throughout, I would have preferred to have seen more detail about how the case had such an impact on the birth of sensationalist journalism. No reference is made to the later Ripper murders which had a similar handling by a press hungry to sell newspapers by dramatising and revelling in the details of particularly gruesome crimes.

"The Suspicions of Mr Whicher" is well worth reading, but it does have its flaws. It's front cover proclaims it "the Richard and Judy number one bestseller" as though that was the equivalent of the Pulitzer. If you want to know more about early Victorian policing and the birth of detective literature though you should find this an interesting and intriguing book which is also easy and enjoyable to read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 August 2013
The author is a biographer, an archivist and a social historian. But unlike many archivists and historians - who can sometimes sound dull and over-academic, she has at her fingertips an added dimension - the gift of story-telling.
Her style is succinct, fast-moving and direct. But the underlying strength of what she has to say lies not merely in 'reporting' the things that happened at the time, but in her shrewdness in knowing precisely which letters , newspaper quotations or comments to include and which to leave out. And it is this tight way of putting-together the relevant issues and reporting these in her fast and efficient way that gives the story its acceleration and excitement.
However, for me, the over-riding appeal of the book lies particularly in the way Kate Summerscale explains how (we) the public respond to given situations: how we all make unexamined assumptions - from the 'posse' mentality of - 'Hang the first person one finds loitering near the scene of the crime', through to the 'scapegoat' mentality of attempting to satisfy the public in whatever way one deems necessary - i.e. 'Blame someone rather than no one'. So from the fantasy world of unexamined assumptions - that personal interior cinema of the mind in which anything goes, we ignore fact, then jump to our convenient conclusions (See Stuart Sutherland's brilliant book 'Irrationality: The Enemy Within' - think Tony Blair ... think me, you, every one of us ...)
Given all that, it is little wonder that the approach of dear Mr Whicher - a person who seeks facts through the medium of reason and the exercise of a rational mind, meet head-on with a public whose desire is for a quick-fix solution. It'a all a fine example of what happens when our belief systems meet head-on.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 October 2012
A true life crime which has all the hallmarks of a fictional whodunnit - a Gothic mansion, a plethora of suspects and sudden violent death. A story made all the more tragic by the fact that it really happened. This is a story which has at its core those basest of human emotions - jealously and vengeance - which in this case were taken out against a young child. Its themes are the stuff that drives fiction: money, class, marginalisation, betrayal and fury; yet this is not so much a whodunnit as a how to go about catching them what done it.
Some accuse Kate Summerscale of weighing the plot down with detail, but I don't agree because for me it is the detail which makes the book. Even with the sophistication of our science the police can't always solve every murder or violent crime. Mr Wicher had only his brain (and his suspicions) to rely on and yet, although there are some who won't agree with this, I think he probably got his man, although justice may not have been entirely done.
I would recommend this book for a number of reasons. It's a fascinating study of Victorian life and middle-class mores in which none of the characters come off particularly well and are exposed for what they were. It's a study in how Victorian detectives had to work. If that's not enough for you, because of the lack of forensic evidence, the book allows the reader to challenge the real-life ending, which is always satisfying. It's also a study in how gender and youth provokes assumption and preconception; and that's because it's basically a study in human nature, as is all violent crime. Not only did we learn of the crime and the probable reasons why it occurred, but the public fury directed against Mr Wicher following his arrest of the prime suspect has certain modern-day parallels if you compare it to some high-profile murder trials of recent years, and in my view for largely the same reasons.
Finally - the book should be applauded for allowing us to remember young Saville. Gone but now not forgotten.

The Magpie Murders - Omnibus Edition

Jane Hetherington's Adventures in Detection Omnibus (Books 1-3)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 February 2012
Winner of The Galaxy Book Of The Year, British Book Awards 2009, Winner of the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize and Shortlisted for The Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, this book has considerable pedigree. It was also A Richard and Judy Number One Bestseller, but never mind.

In a nice, middle class family, with a nice middle class home in June 1860, a toddler vanishes from his bed in the middle of the night. His bloodied, brutalised corpse is discovered the following day, but who did it? And why?

The Murder At Road Hill House isn't just A Locked Room Mystery, of the sort you see in many Agatha Christie novels or the sort you compete to solve when you play a game of Cluedo. It is THE Locked Room Mystery. The original real-life crime, which inspired popular detective fiction of the era, and the impact of which is still felt in crime fiction today. For those who don't know what is meant by Locked Room Mystery, it is now the fodder of Murder Mystery Weekends. A murder occurs in a country house, the doors were locked for the night, the only possible culprit has to have resided in the house that evening. It's been seen in Poirot, Marple, Doctor Who and even most recently in Steig Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo albeit on a grander scale. In the case of Road Hill House, there was no elaborate dinner party involving a vicar, a disgruntled nephew, and a wealthy American socialite; just the Kent family, a husband and wife, seven children and a few servants.

Jack Whicher was among a new breed of plain clothes detectives recently established by Scotland Yard sent to Wiltshire to help solve the crime, but the locals and the nation at large reject his findings. What emerges is an astonishing picture of just how fallible and frankly rubbish the early judiciary system was in Britain. To question someone of good social standing or class, or of an age or gender that would be unseemly, is considered an affront to decency regardless of grounds, but it is the class system that truly is an over-riding factor. In addition, public speculation was apparently encouraged with any Tom Dick or Harry across the nation as a whole believing they had the right to have a say on the case. Juror meetings were held in public, cross examination was ridiculously biased, and the press were allowed a veritable free-for-all on editorial comment.

The utter lack of respect for the legal process is breathtaking, and Summerscale comments at length at the way in which though Mr Whicher had his suspicions, the nation had its suspicions of Whicher. The very existence of a plain clothes force was again considered an affront to decency, the privacy of the Englishman and his home were at stake. These values apparently worth more than the advantages of modern progress in crime solving. Following the Road Hill House case Whicher finds himself a laughing stock and his career is ruined. Whilst fictional detectives of the type written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens surged in popularity their real-life counterparts were considered 'vile' and 'grubby'.

Where this non fiction book succeeds is in the way in which it brings the story of The Kent Family in the earlier half of the book to life, almost but not quite in the manner of a Victorian novel. Where it slightly falters are the moments in which it begins to read like a PhD thesis, and becomes a bit dry and academic. What is certain though is the phenomenal amount of research and background work Summerscale has put into this book, and the respect it deserves for breathing new life into an old but highly influential tale. 9/10
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 5 October 2011
I'd been looking at this text for a while, having recently discovered a fascination for true crime.

The book starts off well, and for the time it focusses on the story of the Road Hill House murder, it is extremely interesting. It's meticulously researched, I'll say that for it. What I didn't enjoy was how often Ms. Summerscale goes off on a tangent. The tangents aren't entirely obscure but I often felt I was forcing myself to read the analysis of Poe (and I absolutely love Poe's work), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. This text is as much a study of the development of detective fiction as it is an account of a murder.

Having said that, I understand why Summerscale puts so much emphasis on how the fictional detective evolved and it's because Mr Whicher and his proteges inspired so many of these authors. I still didn't find the frequent quotes from the aforementioned authors' texts to be of particular interest to me.... I wanted to details of the murder, how the culprit was caught, what happened at the trail and what was the impact?

Summerscale does cover these areas very well though and in impeccible detail, which is why I persevered with the tangents she frequently went off on. This text, like other reviewes have noted, is as much a social commentary of the Victorian era than anything else. We are shown how the attitude of "it couldn't possibly have been a middle class person who did this!" prevailed, and are also shown how the assumption was that the murder must have been committed by one of the hired help, even when the evidence spoke to the contrary. We're given detail of clashes of religious belief, a distaste and fascination for the concept of the detective and how Victorian society adhered to the notion of an Englishman's home is most definitely his castle.

All in all, I can say this text did grab me but it didn't hold my interest, and at times I was forcing myself to continue reading. That said, when the story moved back to the murder I read it with relish.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 1 June 2009
This book is the true story of an intriguing murder of a young child which took place at Road Hill House, in 1860. The author collated a vast amount of reports, national archives, official records, letters, interview notes, etc together to provide an incredibly comprehensive description of the case. I found it interesting to read about how the detective - Jonathan Whicher investigated the case and felt quite aggrieved for him that it reached an inconclusive end, until a shocking confession in 1865. The murder provoked a lot of unrest at the time and the finger was pointed at most of the family and staff. I found it interesting to read about the Victorian ideas of privacy compared to the current day and how the female suspects were treated by the police, public and the press, it made me think about how different the case would be handled today.

For me personally it was disappointing. Albeit interesting, it was very much a book about the history of Victorian social values and I found it read very much like a university thesis, encompassing as many quotes from other `detective' novels as it could. In my opinion, some of these extracts were superfluous and didn't `add' to the book. It must have been fascinating and extremely hard work for Kate Summerscale to put together the content for the book.

Some critics have criticised Kate for not adding any additional padding to make it feel more like a novel but this was obviously her intention and she was very careful not to make assumptions about how anyone, particularly the parents, were feeling when the murder of Saville happened.
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