The Murder at Road Hill House and its Effect on the Genre of Mystery Fiction ~ Beyond the Story of “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” by Kate Summerscale ~ Truth and Fiction Are Closer Than We Think

For the serious student of mystery fiction, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate  Summerscale is a must-read.  The focus of the book relates the true crime, called The Road Hill House murder and its investigation.  Ms. Summerscale also comments, at various points, on the effect this case had on the public’s view of real-life detectives and their portrayal in fiction.  However, this aspect of the case is not her main focus and so the points are scattered throughout the book.  The case’s effect, in reality, was quite profound.  I have tried here to gather her points into a more linear format and I have added a few of my own comments.

The Road Hill House murder took place in Road (later to become Rode), Somerset, England, on 30 June 1860 in the manor home of a middle class family, the Kents, when a three year old child was murdered.  The period of the 1850s and 60s saw a sudden emerging of detectives in fiction. Besides being the most famous crime of that time, the case also became a defining point in the genre of mystery fiction.

Crime fiction in the 1830s and 184os had centered itself in the lower class areas of London.  The first English detective story, by William Russell – writing under the name of Waters – appeared in July 1849 in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal (price one penny).  At this time the public was very wary of detectives and had a great dislike of surveillance.

The word detect (detective) derived from ‘de-tegere’ or ‘unroof’.  The French novelist, Alain-Rene Lesage, had Asmodeus take the roofs off of houses to spy on the lives inside and the word detective came to mean those who snooped, prying into peoples private lives, something the English, in particular, greatly disliked. The home was considered a private place; typically, windows to the street were small and only a select area was open to guests.

The word clue derived from ‘clew’, which was a ball of yarn, or thread. In present day a ‘clew’ is part of the corner fabric of a sail.  Its relation to fabric was furthered when several real-life cases were solved by pieces of fabric. In 1837, a notorious murderer was caught due to the material the murderer had wrapped the body in.  In 1849, Detectives Whicher, Thornton and Field found the Bermondsey murderess, Maria Manning, by a blood-stained dress. In 1850, a thief was caught by a button.  The Road Hill House case hung on a flannel, a blanket and a missing nightgown.  Fictional mysteries began to feature clothing or parts of clothing (torn scraps, buttons, etc.) as clues, due to these real life cases.

The term ‘sleuthhound’ … a dog that followed the scent of its quarry’s ‘sleuth’ (trail) had been used as early as the 1300’s to describe a dog tracking humans. In 1849, the term ‘sleuthhound’ was used by Charlotte Bronte in her novel Shirley to describe detective Moore.  By the 1870’s the term, referring to a detective, had been shortened to ‘sleuth’.

The real-life detective in the Road Hill House case, Jonathan “Jack” Whicher, was one of the original eight Scotland Yard detectives.  The detective bureau was established in August of 1842 even though a few of its officers had been working ‘under cover’ in ‘plain clothes’ since April of that year.

The case contained all the details that went on to become the essential elements in the fictional manor-house mystery.  It took place in a middle class family, in a manor house, there were a large number of suspects that either resided in, or worked at, the manor and there were numerous false leads (red herrings).

On 21 July 1860, the weekly literary paper owned by Charles Dickens, All the Year Round described a French detective, Eugene Vidocq, as ‘impudent, ingenious and [using] daring methods.

By the time the Road Hill House murder occurred, public perception of detectives had begun to change.  A shift began from the subject of a crime story being the daring dashing crook; now he was more often the analytical detective.

Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White was being published in serial form during the investigation of Road Hill House.  The detective in the story, Walter Hartright, often seemed to be in the same situation that Whicher was facing in the real-life case, and he used the techniques in fiction that Whicher employed in real-life.

Charles Dickens’ associate at the magazine Household Words (price a tuppence), Henry Wills, described Whicher in action and this was among the first published descriptions of any actual English detective.  Dickens was a great admirer of Whicher and the Scotland Yard detectives, calling them ‘one and all, respectable-looking men, of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence’.

John Bennett, in his novel Tom Fox, or, The Revelations of a Detective (1860), noted that the Scotland Yard detectives were socially superior to the common ‘peeler’ (ordinary police, so named for the founder of the police force, Sir Robert Peel)  because he was ‘better educated and of a higher intelligence’.  His book was a forerunner of the ‘police procedural’ mystery.  Other authors also began to publish fictional ‘recollections’ of police detectives in which the detective solved cases in a professional manner.

In the 50’s and 60’s crime fiction had moved its setting from the lower class areas of London and had begun to invade the middle class home. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House was an example of this. In 1853, Dickens created Inspector Buckett of Bleak House who was a combination of Whicher, and Whicher’s friend and boss, Charley Field.  Marie Manning, who was apprehended by Whicher and then hanged, in 1849, for the ‘Bermondsey Murders’ was the model for Mademoiselle Hortense in Bleak House.

A full-fledged fictional double of Jack Whicher was Jack Hawkshaw, the detective in Tom Tyler’s play, The Ticket-of-Leave Man, in 1863.  In the play, Hawkshaw helps an ex-convict that had been wrongly accused.

Thus, during the 1850s and up to the middle of 1860, the police detective, both real and fictional, had enjoyed an image as a professional, and somewhat competent, investigator.

By October of 1860, Dickens and the press in general had become disillusioned with detective’s abilities in real-life.  While detective Whicher was certain that Constance Kent was at least one of the murderers of her younger half-brother, he was unable to prove it and by early 1961 the investigation had begun to wind down.

Public perception, which had begun as wariness of surveillance by detectives and had then swung to seeing the detective as a kind of hero during the Road Hill House case, began to shift once again against the police due to the fact that a policeman, or detective, (often of lower class) could pry into the private workings of a middle class house and accuse a member, or members, of the family.  Novels began to portray the bumbling, ineffectual police detective being out-performed by the private detective.  This image saw its culmination in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Despite this, the public was also intoxicated with baffling crime whether in real-life or fiction; loving mysteries where they couldn’t figure out the guilty party.  Wilkie Collins described this fervor as ‘detective mania’ in The Moonstone.  Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin solved crime by searching out clues in newspaper reports rather than chasing around after them, and in real life the public became ‘armchair’ detectives following the case in the papers and forming their own solutions to the crime.  During the Road Hill House investigation newspapers carried every detail, sometimes fact and sometimes rumor, and everyone, from the editors to the public, weighed in with their explanations of what had happened; people wrote letters and newspaper editors suggested their theories.

One of the policeman’s wives aided in the investigation at Road Hill House, as Inspector Bucket’s wife had aided him in Bleak House.  The amateur female detective then made her appearance in The Experiences of a Lady Detective (1861) by W.S. Hayward and in Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864).

The Road Hill House case was retold in the fictional Lady Audley’s Secret, a serialized story by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, appearing in Robin Goodfellow magazine during the period of July – September of 1861, and as a complete novel in 1862.  It was a huge bestseller, one of the best of the ‘sensation’ novels that dominated the 1860s literary scene.  The story contained a governess who married the man of the house becoming an uncaring stepmother, a brutal murder in a country manor house, a body in a well, and characters fascinated by madness – all parts of what confronted Whicher in his real-life case.

Another retelling was by Joseph Stapleton in The Great Crime of 1860.  Stapleton gave an account “authorised” by the Kent family with the apparent motive of clearing suspicion from Mr. Samuel Saville Kent.  Both Stapleton and the philosopher, Henry Mansel, suggested that both the murder and the public’s fascination with it were evidence of ‘national decay’. Stapleton’s concern, however, seems to be limited to making an outcry as his book left no gory detail untold.

The feelings against Whicher and the rest of the detectives, for their failure to close the case, rose to such a pitch that in 1862 the word ‘clueless’ was used to describe the detectives and the police force.  Saturday Review, 1863, said they were ‘useless in solving middle- class crime’. Whicher was called ‘Inspector Watcher’ of the ‘Defective Police’ in Punch in 1863.  He was ridiculed and ostracized in the press continually and on 18 March 1864, he resigned from the force at age 49.

On Tuesday, 25 April 1865, Constance Kent, age 21, went to Bow Street Magistrates Court and confessed to the murder of her younger half-brother.

By 1867 Whicher was working as a private investigator and in this role took part in the longest and most famous court battle of the late 19th century.  The case of Sir Roger Tichborne.  In 1866, a man turned up in London claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to a fortune and a barony.  Many in the family believed him to be an imposter and hired investigators, Whicher among them.  Whicher proved that the man was in reality Arthur Orton who also used the name Tom Castro.  The trial began in May of 1871 and in 1872 the man’s claim was disproved. Charges were then laid against him for perjury and the trial began in 1873 and lasted 188 days.  The judge’s summation took 18 days and on 28 February 1874 the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years hard labor.

Real-life crime once again found its way into fiction as the Tichborne case was to be retold many times. One of its retellings was in 1924 in a play, The Claimant, by Agatha Christie’s sister, Margaret Watts, and later, in modern times, in the ‘steampunk’ novel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder (2011).

In January of 1868, the first installment of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone appeared in All The Year Round.  While the novel is considered to have provided a framework for all detective stories to follow, the story adopted many of the characteristics of the Road Hill House crime: a country manor house, a criminal who had to be one of the inmates of the house, the secret lives led by the people of the house, the bumbling local policeman as well as many specifics of the case…a stained and missing nightdress, laundry book and a lower class policeman accusing a middle class girl. The differing factor was the detective, Sergeant Cuff. He became a hero rather than the outcast that Whicher had become.  In 1927, T.S. Eliot compared The Moonstone to the fiction of Poe.  He called it “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels invented by Collins, and not by Poe.”

The Woman in White was the epitome of the ‘sensation’ novel and The Moonstone became the foundation of the modern detective novel. And at the center of that literary period was the Road Hill House Murder and Detective Whicher.

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