It was a classic murder mystery setting: a country house, its gates locked for the night, a limited pool of suspects within. Only this was real. On 30 June 1860 someone took three-year-old Saville Kent from his bed, murdered hm, and dumped the body down the garden privy. One of nine people must have done it - the parents, the four elder half-siblings, the nurse, the cook, the housemaid - and the newspapers were filled with theories, but nobody had any proof. When the local police failed to make headway London agreed to send a detective. Jonathan Whicher was one of Scotland Yard’s brightest employees, but Road Hill House was not one of the back streets of the capital. The well-to-do not just of Road but the entire country were scandalised by the way that Whicher subjected the family to the same interrogations and searches as the servants, and everyone was appalled by the thought of the sanctity of the home being invaded and inspected. Called in too late and pushed into making an arrest too soon, Whicher failed to come up with the proof to secure a conviction, and set off the beginning of the end of his career. Not for many years would evidence come to light suggesting that the suspicions of Mr Whicher had been correct.
History, mystery, and numerous references to detective fiction - what’s not to love? When I read a review of this book in the Courier-Mail last year I knew I’d enjoy it, and I did. It endeared itself to me at the start by providing a family tree and neatly-organised list of the dramatis personae and carried on from there. As well as the events at Road Hill House and the subsequent investigation, it details the public response, the early history of the police force and Scotland Yard, and the way in which the case was reflected in works of fiction. After the Kent case numerous novels appeared containing similarities to real or conjectured facts - and occasionally flat-footed, intrusive detectives. The book is peppered with quotes from, among others, Bleak House and The Moonstone, which I must soon read and re-read, respectively.
Although Sherlock Holmes wasn’t much cited he did spring to mind - the policing ideal of the day was an officer as much robot as human, who would notice everything without ever letting bias, false assumptions, or any other error get in his way. And in the days before so much as fingerprinting, memory and observation formed a sizeable part of the detective’s arsenal. Road Hill House contained so little concrete evidence that even the precise cause of death was uncertain; the titular suspicions were formed on the basis of personality and prior events - to get at which, of course, the past of the entire family had to be dug up and turned over in a manner now commonplace. From some of the journalism and correspondence quoted, it seems clear that it wasn’t the invasion of privacy that so incensed people, so much as the invasion of middle-class privacy by one whose originated among the great unwashed. (Oh, the horror! And who cares about the servants, right?) If it hadn’t been a matter involving life and death, it might have been amusing.
The history concludes with enough information about the later lives of those mostly concerned to make for a satisfying ending without dragging on too long. And there’s an Australian connection - a large number of them emigrated. As a southerner living in Queensland (a significant portion of whose population believes the place to be the centre of the known universe) I greatly enjoyed reading the descriptions of Melbourne and Brisbane. The latter was referred to by its contemporary epithet “the Paris of the Antipodes” while the latter was described as “a sprawling, makeshift town which served as the capital of the north-eastern state of Queensland.” Not was - merely served as. Love it! And as for Whicher’s conclusions - in one, at least, he was proved correct beyond doubt; for the rest ... I’m inclined to think he was correct.