The public, the press, and the detective — an uneasy relationship from the very beginning 

In late June 1860, Saville Kent, who resided with his family in a house in Road, Wiltshire, England, was murdered. He was three years old. His throat had been cut, and his body had been left on the floor of an outdoor privy used by the servants and tradesmen at the house. It was not at all clear who killed him or why.

The case quickly achieved international fame, and it produced the genre of the English country house murder and the detective who solves the case.

More importantly, it gave us the concept of the English detective — the clever man who viewing things from the outside can spot the inconsistencies, the hidden stories, the fear and even the hate of the participants.

Except that’s not exactly how this case developed. I’m not going to include any spoilers here. If you’re interested, you can read Kate Summerdale’s excellent book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing a Great Victorian Detective. She has all the details, and there are many.

The detective in question is Jack Whicher. He was a member of the first detective squad put together by Scotland Yard in 1842. By 1860, his fame had grown to national proportions because of an enthusiastic press and a general fascination with crime, particularly murder. Whicher’s cleverness and success made him the prototype for the English detective of both fact and fiction that would come down to us today.

But in reading Summerdale’s book, I found some interesting nuances that cloud the picture of the great English detective. I’m not talking about Whicher himself but about that image of the detective.

While Whicher and other detectives received much praise for their insightfulness and derring-do, they were also viewed suspiciously for at least two inter-related reasons.

  • First, a police force was a relatively new concept to the Victorians, and the general public was not always convinced of its necessity — or his fairness and honesty. Big, burly guys, not from the “best” families, tended to join the force, and their trustworthiness was always in question.
  • Second, the class distinction just described came into play in individual cases themselves. That was certainly the case with the investigation of the murder of young Saville Kent. The general feeling was that people who owned large houses would not be involved in activities as unseemly as murder, and that louts such as policemen should not be able to call them into question. Influential people could certainly influence a police investigation, and police officials and magistrates were reluctant to cross class lines even in pursuit of a killer.

Summerdale’s book spins out these and many other elements of this bizarre case. This is a true-crime book that’s well worth the read,

 

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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