August 25, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

In 1860, on a farm in the West Country a boy near on four years old was murdered. He was taken from his cot, slashed and cut at with a knife and razor and then drowned in a privy. Within hours, the local police were called in, within days a London detective, Mr Whicher, was summoned down from Scotland Yard to inspect the case. In 1944, in Australia a local paper reported on a female nurse who had worked with lepers, retired and was now celebrating her hundredth birthday. Emilia Kay died soon afterwards: leaving behind documents which indicated that she was Constance Kent, who had confessed to murdering her own brother Saville Kent in 1865, and who had since emigrated to Australia. Kate Summerscale's book links these two events, more than eighty years apart and tells a story which has several interesting features. Its an absorbing read and retained the interest of this reader all the way through, sufficiently that I only stopped reading it minutes ago at half past eleven this evening. Its absorbing but its also interesting: Summerscale is not just a popular crime writer who found an interesting hook and narrative, she writes about the mentality of the times she analyses and her points deserve attention.

The late nineteenth century was the golden age of detective fiction: Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and Henry James wrote stories which are still read. Those stories didn't come out of a vacuum, they came out of a context. English society in the mid-nineteenth century underwent massive change: the population both expanded and became more urban. A consequence of that was that in 1822 the first police force was created by Sir Robert Peel. From the 1840s that Police Force acquired a detective branch. The detective branch of the Police was at first scandalous and hidden, resented as an aspect of continental tyranny. Policemen were supposed to wear their uniform everywhere, off or on duty so that a citizen might not incriminate himself without realising. Detection was a secretive art and was hated for being so. As the 1850s drew on though, perceptions changed. Detection fitted into a Victorian mindset in which the world was a system filled with signifiers. All you had to do was read them. Sherlock Holmes later commented that detection was a science, by the stride of a man you could know his history, by the stain on a woman's shirt you could know her profession. Detection was an inspirational art in which people might discover and infer things about the world.

This was detection as art as well as science. What Summerscale establishes is the way that intuition shaped detection. Whicher for example bluffed his way into procuring convictions: once telling a horse thief both that he was not alone and that he knew the thief was guilty, neither assertion was true but Whicher got his man and his conviction. Whicher like Holmes and Dupin and Bucket made the evidence talk. He made the world tell a story. Summerscale grasps both how enticing this was and how threatening it was for the Victorian audience. It was enticing because the detective became the knight in the forests of the under world. Holmes took on Moriarty for the sake of civilisation. It was also threatening. When Constance was first charged with murder she became a victim, even in her lawyer's eyes as much of a victim as the murder victim himself. She was being persecuted by a detective, a lower class detective, who presumed to assume she was guilty. She was being cross questioned. Furthermore to be a detective might be a position of authority: but it was also a vulnerable position. You can see that from the novels, the novelists are making a point that we should admire Holmes etc. but also they presume to understand how Holmes makes his case. Whicher was bombarded by suggestions: everyone wanted to be a detective, even Charles Dickens wrote his thoughts down.

Detection was important in the case of the Road Hill murder because of another interesting facet, that Summerscale brings out. The murder occured in a house which was filled with a single family. The doors had been locked. Nobody but the servants and the family could have done the murder. She brings out two latent ideas from this. First is the confinement of Victorian life. The testimonies of Constance Kent (anonymously from Australia in 1928 and in her trial) and others suggest a confined world in which resentment might spin into madness. Secondly though there is the secrecy. Summerscale makes a plausible case that Samuel Kent, Constance and Saville's father, may have suffered from siphilis and retreated to the provinces to hide it. That kind of retreat, that kind of secret fills the book. Its the things which aren't said which are important. The things which lie hidden in the family's past. Samuel Kent blocked off access to his house from the local village and there is a sense that even now many details about what happened are still blocked off. Ultimately this is a world in which Emilia Kay could disappear, quite literally, and turn up in Australia: a secret that only she and perhaps her brother William actually knew.

I have probably told too much of the story but this isn't just an absorbing book, its an interesting one. It portrays a society undergoing massive changes: I think we too often forget how large those changes were and how much effect they had. This is the world of Thomas Hardy in which the patterns of centuries were reversed in decades. The craze for detection had its roots in sudden urbanisation and in scientific revolutions. The privacy of life in rural England was breaking up and the power of the press intruding. Men and Women might be scattered across the globe by fortune. The murder and its tale are interesting but far more interesting are the broader sociological points the book raises. Summerscale warns us upon starting to read that her story is unique: the family she studies odd because a murder occured and that every detail we read comes from the fact that someone investigating the murder found it interesting. With that qualification though, the book still tells me an immense amount about Victorian Britain.

1 comments:

James said...

"It portrays a society undergoing massive changes: I think we too often forget how large those changes were and how much effect they had." This, I think, is one of the psychological means by which serious historical study differentiates its students from laymen. You can never return to that commonplace, weather-talk idea that the ancestors "lived in a simpler age."

Someone born in, say, 1855 and living to see their 90th birthday would not only have seen the Crimean and both World Wars, but would have lived through the telegraph's infancy and on to the birth of the atomic age.

90 year olds today don't know they've been born.