September 2008

Jason B. Jones


An Interview with Kate Summerscale

On the morning of 30 June 1860, the residents of Road Hill House, near Trowbridge, awakened to discover that Saville Kent, the three-year-old baby of the family, was missing. A few hours later, his slashed body was found in the privy. There were as many suspects in the murder as there were residents in the home -- more, even, after accounting for village residents who might or might not be sleeping with various Road Hill servants. The innocence of the victim and the moral certainty that the murderer lived within the household, shocked the Victorians, leading to widespread demands for a thorough investigation.

Fortunately, in 1842, London had created something very un-English: a detective force, charged with solving crimes using everything short of domestic spying, staffed by expert lawmen. Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others lionized these men, awed by their feats of inductive reasoning, and recognizing a comparable knowledge of human psychology. One of these men, Jonathan Whicher, was dispatched to Trowbridge to solve the Road Hill House murder. The maelstrom around the case was so powerful, however, that solving it turned out to be Whicher’s ruin.

This is the story that Kate Summerscale recounts in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and she succeeds so admirably that the book has won the 2008 BBC4 Samuel Johnson nonfiction prize. Summerscale’s chief insight is that this detective, and this crime, were unusually influential in shaping early detective fiction and crime reportage, which in turn set expectations for subsequent crimes and detectives. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is organized as a detective novel itself, in many ways, and in addition to a briskly paced plot offers many details about life in Victorian England.

In the interview below, Summerscale discusses the mutually constitutive relationship between life and art, the need to make the Victorians strange again, the Victorian home as a site of sanctity and anxiety, and many other topics. We spoke by phone in early August.

There are lots of famous crimes in the nineteenth century. What's distinctive about the Road Hill murder?

It was the fact that it was such a dark family story, and it was about the dark side of Victorian domesticity. The Victorian home was so sanctified, and this was the antithesis to that, really. And it made sense of what detection was. Detection was, in a way, an investigation of the Victorian home. That's where it started.

Also, the fact that it was a closed circle of suspects seemed to make it an influential crime in terms of detective fiction -- and made detection an investigation not only of the domestic interior but also of the psychological interior. The detective in this case had a group of suspects and had to work out what their secrets were, as opposed to chasing after a fleeing criminal who had to be tracked down in a geographical sense. All of that made it very intriguing to me.

And those things also turned out to make the public very ambivalent about detection, right? On the one hand, it's easy to admire a cop who chases down a criminal, but, at the same time, someone who goes rooting around through your privy is a different story.

In that sense it became clear to me that this was a story about class, and the way in which detectives were from the lower classes and there was something extremely exciting to the public and also threatening when they turned their attention to the middle classes, rather than the working classes that they had originally been formed to police.

It does seem as though the story was calculated to raise every conceivable Victorian hackle about class -- there's the fact that the villagers hate Samuel Kent, Kent and his servants, the rumors he's having trouble paying his bills for schools, whether he can really afford such a big house, Jonathan Whicher's rise from the working classes...

Yes, and the fact that there are these adulterous and insane elements in the family's past -- it's almost a hyper-real middle-class family with secrets, and so intent on attaining respectability that there's a lot of covering-up going on. Including, as you say, a certain amount of covering up about finances, the suggestion of him living beyond his means, and the hostility due a huge turnover of servants. There was the combination of suspecting him of having sex with his servants and of treating them badly so that they were constantly leaving his employ. Everything was very heightened in terms of the relations between the classes, and the secrets the middle-class home could be imagined as containing.

One of the things that struck me about the story is that there's an interesting tension between the modern aspects of the case (all the press coverage, allegations of coverups and conspiracies, the false confession by the working man, and so forth), but also legacies of older ways (detectives are still new, there's still an expectation of privacy that may seem odd today when there are cameras on every corner and Patriot Acts and things of that nature). So it really seemed to be a switch-point between old ways and new ways of thinking about crime.

What I found very absorbing about the story was the way that a lot of the aspects of crime reporting and thinking about crime and the way it's processed and experienced by us had their origins then. So that we have a great concern about surveillance now, it's much more widespread and common than it was then, but it's the same kind of anxieties, just in an earlier form. And the fact that they're in an original form makes it easier to look at them and to think about them. Similarly with detectives and detective fiction, and what we’re drawn to in that: it seemed to me that by looking at the origins of it, you could get a handle on it more. And I found that fascinating. Including the etymology! You know, the words we use, such as hunch and lead and detective itself -- it had never crossed my mind to wonder where these words came from, and I found it very enlightening to find that out.

Absolutely -- what was it? The link between clue and the legend of the labyrinth?

Yes, and all the imagery of thread which came from that. The word clue was originally a ball which would lead one out of the labyrinth. And also the very words such as unravel, and lead, and all this, much of it is traceable to that kind of imagery, of fabric and threads. You realize when you're reading the Victorian novels or articles about crime that these associations or images were still present in their minds in a way that they aren't now to us. They've just become words to us, but then they really were metaphors.

And metaphors that pointed to the ambivalence about the whole scene. On the one hand, you want to unravel the crime, but at the same time, there is the sense of an unraveling of security, of safety, of the sanctity of the home.

I use that word, the unraveling, for the final section of the book, because it did seem to have that ambivalence to it. The finding of a solution, you unravel the mystery, being a good thing, but also entails the unraveling of individual lives, a collapse and disintegration, and, yes, even the fabric of society as it was conceived to hold strong. Once you pick it apart, you see it can come apart.

And one of the things that is interesting here is how -- without giving away too much -- the explanation can't really account for all the details that came to light when the crime was first committed. The explanation seems both true and inadequate to the violence of the deed.

Which leaves the case sort of endlessly open, though I do reach my own conclusion, as the detective did. I think that's necessary, to come to a kind of solution. But there is something endlessly open, which is partly to do with the absolute horror of the crime itself. However much you can rationally work out what the likeliest explanation and motive and so on was, nothing quite seems equal to what happened. Nothing seems to be able to make sense of that. And so that's one of the reasons why you're left still open-mouthed and not quite grasping it in the end, because of how horrible the crime was. There's also something about the accumulation of details. The case was so poured over at the time, and as I've tried to do in the book, if you try to gather every detail from the scene of the crime, from the lives of the family, the surrounding village, and the mass of information starts to complicate the picture. There's this idea that by gathering more and more evidence you come closer to a solution, but I think that at the time it was certainly felt that, no, the more we're getting the more confusing the picture becomes. There's something of that, too: Once you get enough evidence you can tell any number of stories. It's just what order you choose to put the evidence in.

Having said all that, like the detective in the story, I do feel that I know, more or less, what happened.

Of course -- I didn't mean to suggest that there was an actual lingering mystery. You raise in the book the point that, when the crime is unsolved, every single thing seems freighted with meaning, but then afterwards you are left with this welter of material that turns out to have been unrelated but you still want an explanation for it.

I was fascinated by that, by the way all these banal domestic things seemed to shudder with significance at the time, for as long as the crime went unsolved. To me, this was a great benefit -- it is one of the interesting things about writing about historical crime. You get a wealth of domestic detail that you otherwise wouldn't have any access to. And so all of the details that have, in effect, returned to banality once it turns out they were red herrings, they don't really have anything to do with a solution to the case, to the modern reader, or to me, they still are of great interest, because they are clues to how people felt, thought, lived. So the details that are relevant to the crime, and the details that are relevant to history are different, but they still have a fascination as historical details.

On the one hand, your book wears its research very lightly, it doesn't feel bogged down by detail; on the other, it's meticulously researched, with details about the weather, specific details about the family life -- it must have been a blast to go through the archives for this.

Yes, it was fantastically enjoyable to try to do. In a way, that came out of my decision to try to recreate Whicher's investigation as much as I could, day by day. To make that work, I tried to research, in detail, the environment, the weather, rail timetables, so it was in a way mimicking the work of a detective reconstructing a crime scene. But I wasn't just reconstructing the scene of the crime I was also reconstructing the scene of the investigation, because in a way I was investigating his investigation. That was, in a sense, my model, and that was the demand I placed on myself, by making it chronologically minute, day by day. That drove me to looking in local papers for crop reports so I would see whether the harvest was in by that point in the year.

There's reported speech in the book, but it's all from contemporary transcripts, right?

All the speech is either from reports in the newspapers or in the court (whether trial transcripts or magistrate's hearings) or Inspector Whicher's own reports, where he described in some detail what had happened while he was there.

Like Dickens and Wilkie Collins, you seem impressed by Jonathan Whicher. What's so compelling about Detective-Inspector Whicher?

It's partly the irony and the poignancy of his story, which is that he worked on this extraordinary case, and, in essence, got the solution right, but was ruined by getting it right, by seeing the truth. That's what seemed compelling about him to me in the first place. And then as I tried to find out more and more about him, I did see him as a model for all the police detective heroes since -- sort of laconic, and wry, seeming ordinary but being rather brilliant and imaginative. As a model, he was fascinating, and as a man, he was moving. There remains something mysterious about how he worked, which I think is part of the fantasy and magic of the detective figure, in that in the end, although he came up with ingenious and imaginative scenarios and hypotheses about what had happened, in the end he went on hunches, on gut instinct, on observations about people. And so there's something inexplicable about how he arrived at the conclusions he did -- but he did. And he was usually right, but not always, importantly. I think the fact that he was fallible made him a more interesting figure than some fantasy detective like Sherlock Holmes.

His foils here -- the Kents are not -- I mean, obviously one feels great sympathy for them because of their loss, but at the same time the Kents are not an appealing family: You have the arriviste second wife, and all the rest.

No, they are a terrible, damaged family, and just about holding themselves together. For a long time, many people wanted to pin the blame for this boy's death on his father, and I think there's some kind of moral weight to that, in that I think the way that the father lived and brought up his family was a case of his sins being visited on his children and on himself. The family just sort of goes from bad to worse. It's a very messy, unattractive family in many ways, but also you can't help but feel a lot of pity for certainly the children of the family.

Especially around the father, if you're going to take Victorian family ideology seriously, with the patriarchal Victorian authority figure -- that has a cost as well. When things go badly in your family, it redounds on you to a certain extent.

I suspect that he knew what had happened and how his son had been murdered, and that he assumed the role of the patriarch in protecting his family from the consequences of it, but with even greater damage inflicted on them from within as a result of that.

One of the most striking elements of the case is the amount of speculation it provoked, what you, borrowing from Collins, call "detective fever," and how much that fever had to do with sex, and the conviction that what HAD to have happened was the nursemaid was having sex, and the child saw it, so she killed him. It's fascinating how quickly the Victorians seemed to leap to that conclusion.

I was struck by that, and by how easily they thought that two people surprised in bed having sex would naturally leap to murder a child who witnessed it. That seemed a completely believable scenario in the newspapers, and to me it seemed completely unbelievable. I don't know how to decipher that exactly -- also, they were quite prepared to believe that the father might easily have killed his son, if surprised in bed with the nursemaid, and that that would have been a logical outcome of that scenario. Again, I don't know how to decipher it, but it gives you that vivid sense of strangeness. Although a lot of what interested me in the book was tracing the beginnings of how we read about and think about terrible crimes now, there are ways in which it just seemed so foreign, so alien.

It seemed to me that the speculation seemed to speak to English fantasies about servants, and especially anxieties about live-in servants. The woman in the house is simultaneously necessary and a threat to family integrity.

And the fact that in this family there was living proof of that danger, since the father's wife was the previous live-in servant governess, who had usurped the position of the first wife, first of all, in practice, and then in total after the first wife's death, she became the second. So the murdered boy's mother was a servant, who had managed to rise above herself by having an affair with the father of the house. So perhaps this does account for the way in which the scenario with the nursemaid being again a sort of corrupting force within the household was so easily adopted.

There's something interesting about the public reaction to Jonathan Whicher -- how dare that grubby detective root around in the family home -- and all that ribald speculation. We don't want HIM going through our stuff, but, at the same time, we know what's really going on in there. I'm not sure if it's hypocrisy, or closing ranks around the middle class, or what...

It was fascinating how much the public played detective, and the rise in crime reporting made that possible, because the newspapers provided so many details about the circumstances about the murder, and the witnesses, the different sorts of clues that the detective, too, gathered. And so everyone played detective, and my feeling about when they turned on Whicher after he failed to prove his case, my feeling is that there was a certain amount of self-disgust there, as well, that was put onto the detective, or contained in him. If he failed to bring a firm solution, then he was rejected, and it was to do with an unease about what was going on in the newspapers, and in the public mind, and in the pubs and drawing rooms in England, that was in a way split in half, and by punishing him, and expressing disgust at him, people were protecting themselves from the worst implications of their own voyeurism and speculation.

In addition to crime reporting, of course, one of the structural claims of the book is that there's a correlation between this case and the almost exactly coincidental in time efflorescence of detective fiction.

It was coincident -- detective fiction started shortly before this case, pretty much at the moment that the detective force was founded in England in 1842, and Whicher was one of the original eight detectives in that force. And so his career was entirely coincident with the rise of detective fiction. He and his colleagues were interviewed by, and partly idolized by, Charles Dickens, who created the first fictional detective in an English novel in Inspector Bucket, soon after meeting him. And then the case itself, the Road Hill case, fed pretty directly into Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, and Sergeant Cuff was partly modeled on Whicher. It was as if the fact and fiction were feeding in and out of each other. The public's way of reading what went on at Road Hill was partly informed by images of detectives that they'd received through fiction, and then the real-life investigation at Road Hill and the downfall of Whicher in turn fed into detective fiction as a genre. I found that very interesting, the weaving in and out of the real and the fictional detectives, and the ways in which the real crime seeped into fiction, particularly in the years when it was unsolved and therefore partly unspeakable in the press. There was a limit to how much speculation -- once the police investigation had definitively collapsed, it wasn't really legitimate to carry on bandying about these accusations in the five years between the murder and the confession of the murder, which came in 1865. It seemed to me that the case was very influential in terms of the beginnings of detective fiction -- and not just detective fiction, but the psychological thriller as well. Sensation fiction began in that period, with characters who can't tell if they've unraveled a great mystery or if they're going insane.

Sensation novels do give you the jolt of the crime, but they don't really fold it back into a safe moral universe at the end, or if they do, it's so implausible, that it doesn't work.

Yes, it is a much less comforting genre, and thus psychological thrillers are less comforting than detective stories. The detective is a great buffer and a guide through a novel. I found that with this book, as well, I experienced it firsthand, not just as a reader but as a writer: The detective protected me from the worst horrors of the case, and by seeing it through his eyes, and following his investigation, it could remain a legitimate investigation, rather than wallowing in horror, madness, and all the rest of it, and I realized that that was part of the role of the detective, and part of the containing and comforting thing about detective fiction. The moral purpose that goes through the whole thing -- without the detective, you may not have it.

One of the things that's funny about the rise of the detective novel is that there had been another kind of crime novel popular early in the century -- Oliver Twist is a perfectly good example of it -- the Newgate novel that celebrates the criminal. So you go, in really just a few years from novels that valorize criminals such as the Artful Dodger or Jack Sheppard to these novels where the detective really is the hero. The Victorians came to love their lawmen, but also to repudiate them, as you say.

With the detective novel, and the figure of the detective, you can have it both ways. The detective, in order to be effective, has to think like a criminal, to imagine himself the murderer, and what he'd do, and so forth. It's still satisfying the same sort of pleasures of getting close to a criminal, whether it's a criminal underworld, which would be a sort of class thrill, of getting close to something dirty and dangerous, or a criminal mindset, something more psychologically dark. The detective fiction is a way of getting close to that while remaining safe, so I don't think any of those pleasures of the Newgate novel were lost.

You organize the book as a crime novel -- the knowledge of the murderer is deferred until fairly late in the book -- and so we do have to depend on the Inspector. Why did you decide to organize the book this way?

Because a lot of the interest of the story was how it helped form detective fiction, and the figure of the fictional detective, I thought it would be a useful way of bringing out all the reflections on that that I could, to organize it in the shape of the books that it would partly inspire. That would be a way of investigating what the comforts and excitements of those kinds of stories were. And to keep it close to those stories in the pleasures it offers the reader. Insofar as I couldn't keep it exactly like a detective novel, that would also help illuminate for me what the gaps were between a real crime and a real detective and a real murder investigation, and the fantasy, fictional one that we're accustomed to. It was a way of illuminating that gap eventually as the book goes on. It can't deliver all the same satisfactions, but it does some of them, and some of the ways in which it departs from detective fiction in its shape are especially interesting and especially poignant.

There's a footnote in the book about The Turn of the Screw, and I feel that that story has a lot of the atmosphere of this case. And it seemed to me that that novella, which was published at the same sort of time as the Sherlock Holmes stories, was a sort of anti-detective story, in that it undoes all those comforts, the certainty. You become less and less sure about what really happened, instead of more and more sure. I felt that my book went toward that sort of unsettled, creepy ambiguity, as well as toward the pleasurable closures of detective fiction... It is certainly very exciting to go back and make [the Victorian era] strange again. There's a false familiarity that we have with that period, that the period itself has a comforting, this-is-Englishness feeling to it, which is very interesting to unravel. To make it strange, and to make it more alive again, instead of closed.