The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, by Kate Summerscale

It is a time in English and world history when detective is a newly coined word, when an organized police force is replacing a private or volunteer system, and Edgar Alan Poe is one of the few authors to write about a way of solving crime that doesn’t involve simply catching someone in the act.

Jonathan “Jack” Whicher was an early recruit to the newly formed Scotland Yard and was one of eight London policemen to be named to a new squad called the Detective Branch.

In 1860 Whicher was sent to a small village of Rode in southwest England. A horrific murder has been committed and the local police have a dozen possible suspects but no witnesses and no evidence. What was later dubbed the Road Hill Murder captured the attention of the English public and was reported on by the likes of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

This is a truly amazing, wonderful piece of history writing. Some of my favorite history writing will take a single event and use it to give insight into the world in which that event takes place. This true-crime story does that and much more. Summerscale has done amazing research on book, collecting newspaper stories, autopsy reports, and court records. But beyond that she opens the history of what was a new era in dealing with crime and follows the characters in the book well past when the crime is resolved.

The case essentially ended Whicher’s Scotland Yard career. All evidence leads him to a family member in the victim’s household. But Whicher is called late to the case. Evidence has disappeared, the crime scene has been disturbed, and with no witnesses the local villagers can offer no more than gossip and guesses. Further, he must deal with a weak prosecution in a location far from his home ground and with a middle-class crime above his own place in society. As the subtitle makes clear, the case is his undoing.

Summerscale also reflects on the nascent world of detective fiction. Whicher was credited as a model for early fictional detectives including Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (the case itself would inspire characters in The Mystery of Edwin Drood), Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse.

Just five years later a confession brings the case to a close, and we follow some family members as far as Australia to their own deaths.

For anyone interested in history of the Victorian Era (the queen herself appears), the history of detective fiction, or true crime this is a wonderful book. It flows like a true mystery with the secret kept to the final confession, but then goes even further in ways almost too bizarre for fiction.