Victorian murder mystery inspires book prize winner

When a three-year-old was brutally murdered in an urbane Wiltshire household in 1860, the crime created a national frenzy and sparked an entire new literary genre of the aristocratic "country house murder".

Almost 150 years later, the murder at Road Hill House looks set to regain its grip on the national imagination after a modern-day account of the Cluedo-style killing won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Or The Murder at Road Hill House, by Kate Summerscale, had been regarded as the most commercial book on the six-strong shortlist. The prize, regarded as the non-fiction "Booker" in the literary world, had been tipped to go to Patrick French's biography of the writer V S Naipaul, The World Is What It Is.

The murder of Saville Kent took five years to solve and inspired a generation of writers including Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. The case had all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery: a body, a brilliant detective, called Jack Whicher, and a country house steeped in secrets.

The murder took place at the height of summer in an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road. The home was owned by the Kent family, who were apparently asleep with the door firmly bolted, when the murder took place. They awoke to the murder which provoked national hysteria that a respectable, middle-class family could be held under suspicion for such a brutal crime.

Summerscale said she was drawn to it after reading about the murder by chance. "I read about the Road Hill child murder in an old anthology of celebrated Victorian cases. I was fascinated by the story – a country house murder in which everyone in the household fell under suspicion – but I was especially struck by the figure of Inspector Whicher, a brilliant detective whose career was ruined by the case... Whicher was a model for the fictional sleuths of today," she said.

Mr Whicher's reports and notes have even been preserved by the Metropolitan Police. It had been "a treat to research", she admitted. "The Victorian public seemed to have been as intrigued as I was by the dark secrets of the murder victim's household: the wayward adolescent children, the nervous nursemaid, the spinster sisters, the bad-tempered father and his two wives – the first a madwoman, the second his former servant and lover."

The figure of Mr Whicher is believed to have inspired the creation of Sergeant Cuff in Collins' The Moonstone and Dickens' all-knowing Inspector Bucket in Bleak House as well as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

Rosie Boycott, the former newspaper editor and chair of the prize's judging panel, said the winning book had been a unanimous choice. "It was very much like the McCann case is today, with the media crawling all over it... No one wanted to believe an upper-class family could commit a murder like this one, so everyone wanted to blame the servants," she said.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there