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Non Fiction

Victorian C.S.I. (before the use of DNA and print detection)


My post title is such that this is a Victorian C.S.I. which is before the use of DNA and finger print detection, which make it almost impossible for detective to pin down the culprit. Mr. Whicher also turned up at the crime scene 2 weeks later, when the trail had all gone cold. So all he could rely on were his suspicions.

It is midnight on 30th June 1860 and all is quiet in the Kent family’s elegant house in Road, Wiltshire. The next morning, however, they wake to find that their youngest son has been the victim of an unimaginably gruesome murder. Even worse, the guilty party is surely one of their number – the house was bolted from the inside. As Jack Whicher (real name, Jonathan Whicher), the most celebrated detective of his day, arrived at Road to track down the killer, the murder provokes national hysteria at the thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes i.e. scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing.

This middle class household consists of the patriach, Samuel Saville Kent who worked as a factory inspector, married to his ex-governess after the mysterious death of his first wife, who is rumoured to be insane. He has 4 surviving children from the first marriage (the other 4 died from childbirth, and Edward died at sea), Mary-Ann, Elizabeth, Constance and William Saville; and 3 children from the second marriage, Mary Emilia, Francis-Saville (which was murdered) and Eveline. Feeling slight by the new family, the children from the first marriage were jealous and embittered. The household also consists of several live-in and drop-in servants. Who dunnit it? Could it be the nursemaid Elizabeth Gough who possibly had relationship with the patriach and Francis-saville saw them and was killed to silence the scandal? Could it be Constance whose missing night dress provides the main evidence for the murder? Could it be an outsider who is not happy with Samuel? Is it done by a single person resolve or is there an accomplice?

Mr. Whicher at the peak of his career, was ridiculed and scorned at for jumping into conclusion about whodunnit it, and for many years live in low profile as private detective and it wasn’t until a confession resurfaced that his good name is restored, and the murderer convicted and incarcerated. The story ended by tracing the life story of the Kent family. A sacrificial act, a repentence, a family reconciliation, a rise in prominent in a chosen career, a change of name and a new life in penal colony of Australia, a bitter sweet ending for a family which were haunted by the murder for most of their lives. The murderer of Road also went on to occupy a space in the Madamme Tussard Wax museum for awhile (you won’t find the figure there anymore now), and made mosaic for the floor in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral as an inmate in the Woking prison.

It wasn’t towards the end of the book that I realised the book has 2 titles (yeah, I’m a bit slow on this, or maybe it is because of the fact that I don’t scrutinise book cover, it’s just there!): The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, on the British edition; and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or Murder and The Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, on the American edition. No matter how many times it is said that the book is a non-fiction, I find it hard to sink in my psyche that it is a non-fiction, because it really reads like a crime thriller. Besides unfolding the murder investigation at the Road Hill House, I was delighted to be introduced to the history of detective investigation and the social psyche of the Victorian era (I know some readers don’t like it, and thought the book could be halved if it focuses only on the murder investigation). It talks about the national fascination with the case, the birth of fictional detective and crime fictions, detective literature, the psyche of murderer, Victorian women, middle-class household, marine biology and pearl cultivation, the involvement of Churches and media frenzy in covering the murder (media with the ability to defamed and upheld dignity of an invididual), insanity and even STDs.

The writer’s research is also very numerically driven. It tells us that £1 had the purchasing power of £65 in today’s money, a shilling was worth a 20th og £1 and had the purchasing power of about £3.25 today. A penny is worth about 25p of today’s money. (see www.measuringworth.com). So back then a police man is paid £1 a week, a police sergeant is paid between £50 – £73 per annum, an inspector more than £100. A factory inspector £350 p.a. I find it very fascinating.

Present day Road Hill House, Wiltshire

Present day Road Hill House, Wiltshire

Many of the literature and books published back then fashioned after the characters in the Road Hill House, Charles Dicken last work Edwin Drood narrates a pair of brother and sister, Helena and Neville Landless who frequently ran away from home with the girl dressed up as a boy (as Constance and William did). Moonstone tells a story of a girl who admitted to the murder to cover up for the man that she loves. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte tells a story of the master falling in love with the governess with an insane first wife locked in the attic. In 1893, the philosopher Henry Mansell described such crime novels as ‘indication fo a widespread corruption, of which they are in part bore the effect and the cause: called into existence to satisfy the cravings of a diseased appetite, and contributing themselves to foster the disease, forming a circle of excitement – sexual and violent – that coursed through every stratum of society. These books, the original psychological thrillers, were seen as agents of social collapse. They alluded to real crimes, such as the Road Hill case, to add a frisson of authenticity, ‘the vulture-like instinct which smells out the newest mass of social corrution and hurries to devour the loathsome dainty before the scent has evaporated’. In the UK, the first thing that I noticed in every bookstore is that there are shelves of A – Z crime fictions, sprawling as far as the eyes can see. The public libraries are no exception, my recent discovery took me to 8 shelves of books on True Crime category. People here reads lots of crime and horror thrillers. I used to wonder if this phenomenon is not a reflection of the health of a society? A society who feeds on the lurid and the macabre. When I watched C.S.I. series on TV, as much as I enjoyed them, I always wonder if it provides pure entertainment or enough gruesome ideas and inspiration of would-be murderers to try some of these ideas out? *A shudder*

Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional – to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. ‘The detective story, observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, ‘is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt, He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.

I can’ t put it any better.

I find it fascinating not only because this is a true crime, the floor plan of the house, map of the town and family tree were laid out, character list provided, and pictures of the characters were inserted as well, not to mention that the crime happened in the neighbouring borough from the city of Reading where I am staying now, which add a realism into it. The subject matter was written as a book before by Joseph Stapleton and John Rhodes, proving that you can make money by giving a tiresome topic a new breathe of fresh air (like many books that spurt out from the Da Vinci Code! Just watched the movie on TV yesterday, what a drag!) What made it all the more interesting is that this is not fiction, this true story has all the hallmarks of a classic gripping murder mystery. An original Victorian whodunnit. Highly recommended. 

The book is the winner of BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction 2008. In the Galaxy British Book Award 2009, this book is a winner in both  Galaxy Book of the Year and Play.com Popular Non-fiction categories.

Verdict: 4/5

What I like most about the book: Informative, thrilling, and real.
What I like least about the book: Can go off tangent and repetitive.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


5 thoughts on “Victorian C.S.I. (before the use of DNA and print detection)

  1. Great review, Jo. I love the way you put it, Victorian CSI indeed 🙂 Also, I was almost heartbroken over poor Mr Whicher 😀

    Posted by Bina | July 3, 2011, 1:30 pm
    • Bina, I was heartbroken too. For strange reason I was heartbroken when I finish the book. I thought of getting a copy of the book and make it permanent sitting on my shelf but the copy I stumbled upon yesterday was a bit tatty. Maybe I’ll come across another one. I really enjoy this one and only true crime I have ever read! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | July 3, 2011, 4:50 pm


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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