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The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or, the Murder at Road Hill House, By Kate Summerscale

A fresh new take on an infamous Victorian crime

On the morning of 29 July 1860, Samuel and Mary Kent, an apparently prosperous couple in rural Wiltshire, awoke to find their three-year-old son, Saville, missing from his cot in the nursery. His body, it soon emerged, had been slashed at the neck to the vertebra and stuffed into the outside privy, where, wrapped in a bloody blanket, it lay upon the splashboard between the seat and the foul pit below. According to Jonathan Whicher, the Scotland Yard detective who was called in to restart the flawed investigation by the local police, the guilty party was Constance, the plain, sullen, teenage half-sister of little Saville Kent. And he was right.

When she confessed to the crime, five years later, Constance Kent became one of the best-known names in England. Rubberneckers at Madame Tussauds gloated over her waxwork; others made do with the millions of words her case conjured into newspapers and periodicals. Wilkie Collins pilfered details from the case in the construction of The Moonstone, the founding text of English detective fiction. The broadside balladeers of Seven Dials made their contribution too: "His little throat I cut from ear to ear,/ Wrapped him in a blanket and away did steer/ To the water-closet, which soon I found,/ In the dirty soil then I pushed him down." We can, I suppose, judge a society by the way it treats its juvenile killers.

Kate Summerscale is by no means the first writer to wake the dead of Road Hill House but her account is different from most written in the past 30 years or so. Its focus is as much on the vigilant Whicher as on the young woman he accused. It has a strong sense of the participants in the case as human beings. Most importantly, it does not use the case as a blunt instrument with which to attack the Victorians.

The latter has been standard practice among cultural historians since Mary S Hartman's 1977 book Victorian Murderesses, which advanced the painfully dodgy argument that women who killed in the 19th century were crusaders against patriarchy. The notion proved popular, making it possible for subsequent studies to upbraid Victorian writers for not spelling this out more clearly; for failing to articulate the obvious fact that female killers in the 19th century were, in the words of Professor Virginia Morris, "strik[ing] the first blows in a very long war for gender equality". Under this schema, Constant Kent's murder of her brother was a justifiable attack upon the moral hypocrisy of her father – a factory inspector suspected of an affair with his children's governess – as much as it was a crime of sibling jealousy and resentment.

Rather like Inspector Whicher, Summerscale sweeps aside the self-interested theorising of her predecessors at Road Hill House, and applies herself to the case with reason and sensitivity. Her picture of the culture that produced this story is, consequently, richer and far more plausible. The most telling detail of the narrative comes after the death sentence has been pronounced on Constance Kent. The public, though they acknowledged the verdict, refused to accept the penalty. Newspaper editorials demanded mercy; doctors and magistrates lobbied the Home Secretary to stay the sentence. He did. Constance Kent was saved from the gallows and lived to be 100.

Google Jamie Bulger's murderers and you find headlines such as this one from the Mirror: "Devil Dad: Bulger Killer to be a Father." The 19th century press offers nothing so aggressive or judgemental. Neither does The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and with that restraint, it restores to everyone involved in this case – the victim, the murderer, the bystanders, the investigators – the right to be treated as individual human subjects, not as pieces of evidence in a fatuous academic argument.