This book, by Kate Summerscale, is quite a tour de force. Jonathan Whicher was one of the first detectives in the Metropolitan Police in 19th Century London, and Summerscale tells the story of the murder at Road Hill House, which Whicher was called to investigate. The murder of a 3-year-old child in a house where all the family and servants had been locked in for the night gripped England for a year. Whicher solved the case, but couldn’t prove it, and his career was almost destroyed by the calumny he underwent.
More than a true-crime account, though, it’s the story of the intertwining of the detective novel and real-life detectives, and the story of the way in which criminal investigation, Darwinian science, and Freudian analysis all evolved in tandem, with a shared belief in searching the past for clues.
Dickens and Wilkie Collins both interviewed Whicher and his colleagues at length and based their own fictional detectives on the new breed of professionals. Dickens took a keen interest in the Road Hill murder. He had his own theory, which he published in letters, but he wasn’t alone: dozens of newspapers covered every aspect of the case, from detailing the secrets of the family, to offering their own theories of the murder.
Summerscale also describes the secrecy of the Victorian middle-class household. Her book explains why “locked-room” mysteries became popular–early crime writers were obsessed with the Road Hill locked house mystery. Wilkie Collins based the Moonstone on Whicher and Road Hill. When Sherlock Holmes arrived, the perfect detective, he was in a way the embodiment of all of Whicher’s craft.
A must-read for anyone who cares about the mystery genre.
Now–I need something new to read–so tell me what has really gripped your imagination lately.