The butler didn’t do it

Bee Wilson

  • The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale
    Bloomsbury, 334 pp, £14.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 8215 1

‘The word “clue”,’ Kate Summerscale writes, ‘derives from “clew” meaning a ball of thread or yarn.’ In mid-Victorian England, clues were satisfying objects to be grasped, then unknotted or unravelled. Clues pointed the way to go. On his way into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Theseus unravels a ball of red thread given him by Ariadne, so that he can find his way out again, gathering the thread as he goes. By the 19th century, it was thought desirable to untangle a clue – separate out the thread from the ball – rather than gather it up as Theseus had done. In David Copperfield, Mr Wickfield tells David he will ‘unravel’ a clue. In Great Expectations, Dickens refers to a napkin being wielded like a ‘magic clew’, leading ‘the way upstairs’. In The Moonstone, Gabriel Betteredge laments ‘a clue that had broken in our hands’. If there were clues, there were also pseudo clues, leading down blind alleys, pointing away from the truth.

The Road Hill House case of 1860, like The Moonstone (1868), which was partly inspired by it, entailed countless clues and pseudo clues. It was one of the nastiest murders of the day, provoking national hysteria and press speculation which rumbled on for years afterwards. The Bath Chronicle called it ‘a deed that sends a shudder through every English home’. Road Hill was an elegant country house belonging to Samuel Kent, a 59-year-old factory inspector. He lived there with his second wife and their three young children, plus four children from an earlier marriage and assorted servants. On a hot July morning, the family woke up to find one of its youngest members missing from his cot: Saville Kent, a sunny three-year-old with curly yellow hair, was later found shoved down a servant’s privy, his lips blackened, his throat slit, his body coated in excrement.

In the days that followed, no one connected with the affair seemed innocent. Why, on hearing that the boy was missing, did Samuel Kent ride to the nearby town of Trowbridge? The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, said that she had noticed Saville’s absence soon after 5 a.m. Why did she wait two hours before alerting the boy’s mother? Some thought Gough didn’t weep enough in the days after her charge’s death. She became the local police’s chief suspect. ‘The female suspects in the case were constantly scrutinised for kisses and tears, the tokens of innocence,’ Summerscale writes. Then there was William Nutt, the local shoemaker, a father of six, who discovered the body in the privy. Nutt had predicted that the child would be found dead. Suddenly, he seemed a shifty figure, ‘bumble-footed’, with a weird way of holding his arms. Highly suspicious!

The murder put everything in the household in a new light. Common domestic objects became charged with meaning. ‘The observers, like paranoiacs, saw messages everywhere. Objects could regain their innocence only when the killer was caught.’ Local constables scrutinised Road Hill’s carving knives, its routines, its sleeping arrangements. A piece of bloodied newspaper was found at the scene – the Morning Star. Yet Mr Kent read only the Times, the Frome Times and the Civil Service Gazette. Did this mean anything? Another clue was the household laundry book, with which the police became fixated.

The Road Hill case was dense with fabric. The setting of the murder happened to be clothmaking country, a land of sheep and wool mills. The family’s dirty laundry lay at the heart of the investigation, their washerwoman was a key witness, and the investigation threw up three clues of cloth: a flannel, a blanket and a missing nightdress.

The blanket was the one in which the little boy was wrapped as he was spirited from his bed. The flannel was a woman’s breast flannel found at the scene of the crime: a curious Victorian accessory, this, a kind of pad tied inside a corset to cushion the chest. It was congealed with blood. As for the missing nightdress, it became the most important clue of all. The laundry book showed that a female nightdress was missing. Could it be the garment the murderer was wearing as she killed the infant? A general feeling gathered that if only the guilty – bloodied – nightdress could be found, the case would be solved. Wilkie Collins borrowed this clue for The Moonstone, though he turned it from a bloody garment to one splattered with fresh paint.

Because of the breast flannel and the nightdress, every woman at Road Hill House had to account for her undergarments. The servants were unceremoniously told to strip and try on the breast flannel (which had been washed because the stench was unbearable). Like Cinderella’s slipper, the fit of the garment seemed to be the key to the secret. The housemaid and the cook must have been relieved to find that their bosoms were too wide. Elizabeth Gough was not so lucky. Her breast was neither too large nor too small, but just right for the flannel. This increased police suspicion of the governess. But, as Mrs Dallimore, the police searcher, admitted, the flannel ‘might fit a great many’, and the police had not thought to ask family members – Mrs Kent and her three stepdaughters – to try it on. The missing nightdress, too, created more confusion than clarity. Mary Ann Kent, Samuel’s oldest spinster daughter from his first marriage, aged 29, was found to have a bloodstained nightdress in her possession, but again this was no more than a pseudo clue. A local surgeon testified that the blood was due to ‘natural causes’ (i.e. menstruation). Two weeks after the murder, the local police were no nearer to finding the true nightdress, or the true murderer.

In the midst of this chaos of clues came the one man who could make sense of it, Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard. At the time of the Road Hill murder, detectives were still a relatively recent invention, like ‘the camera, the electric telegraph and the railway train’. Whicher was one of the original Scotland Yard detective force, established in 1842. He was stout, pock-marked and shorter than the average policeman: ‘a plain, honest-looking fellow, with nothing formidable in his appearance, or dreadful in his countenance’, according to William Henry Wills, Dickens’s deputy at Household Words, who’d observed Whicher at work in 1850. Whicher’s talent, however, was far from ordinary. Wills noted his ‘evident omnipotence’ when apprehending a trio of malefactors at an Oxford hotel. Dickens himself found Whicher thoughtful, ‘as if engaged in deep arithmetical calculations’. By 1860, he had proved himself to be the ‘prince of detectives’ (as a colleague called him), a man who could see through fraudsters and uncover jewel thieves. He was dispatched to Road Hill on the instructions of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police as ‘an intelligent officer’, the best man for the job.

On his arrival, two weeks after the body had gone cold, Whicher did all the things we would expect a good detective hero to do. ‘He would have to reopen the wounds, unseal the scene,’ Summerscale writes. He would ask questions, offend people. Like Theseus, he would pick up the thread and proceed backwards out of the maze – Summerscale’s generally sober prose turns just a little giddy whenever Mr Whicher is near. Like Columbo, say, he was a working-class cop (born in Camberwell, the son of a gardener), not afraid of interrogating the rich and privileged. Unlike the deferential local police, who required the servant girls but not the ladies of the house to try on the breast flannel, Whicher had no scruples about embarrassing well-born females with talk of undergarments if it helped the investigation. He turned his attention to Constance, Kent’s temperamental, sullen 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage, travelling to her boarding school – a genteel establishment – and brandishing the breast flannel. Did the teachers recognise it, he asked? (They did not.)

Mr Whicher proceeded exactly as those of us raised on Morse and Wexford would want him to. The Somerset and Wilts Journal reported that he worked alone: ‘Making no confidants . . . he has been plodding on, visiting for himself, and conversing with, all the persons engaged in this catastrophe, and following up, to the utmost, every gleam of light which might be seen to break in upon it.’ He was a pro. He even had the catchphrases we require of our detectives. Where Columbo says ‘Just one more thing’ or ‘I’ll be a son of a gun,’ Whicher shouts: ‘As sure as I’m alive!’ ‘That’ll do,’ he exclaims on finding a clue. Despite arriving at Road Hill too late to view the evidence fresh, he cut through all the pseudo clues to get to the truth. He didn’t succeed in finding the bloodied nightdress, but developed a workable theory of how its disappearance had been covered up. He looked at the occupants of Road Hill House and ‘reckoned ’em up’. Like all our detective heroes, he knew who did it almost as soon as he saw her. On Friday, 20 July, Whicher arrived at Road Hill to arrest Constance. ‘I am innocent,’ she said, impassive, with squinty eyes.

Although he did everything just as Columbo would have, it all went wrong for Whicher. He didn’t fit the mould in 1860. He was too impertinent, too hard-working; not amateurish or gentlemanly enough. The Wiltshire police – shown up by Whicher’s energy – briefed the press against him. Constance’s defence lawyer, Peter Edlin of Bristol, accused him of too much ‘professional eagerness in the pursuit of the criminal’. It was ‘improper’, Edlin said, to question Constance’s schoolfriends. Edlin succeeded in persuading the magistrates that the case had no merit. ‘The one fact,’ Edlin said, witheringly, ‘is the suspicion of Mr Whicher.’

Whicher had unravelled the clues and followed them to their destination; but the wild speculations that followed Constance’s bail ravelled them up again into a woolly mess. ‘A new clue must be discovered before justice can thread the mazes of the labyrinth of Road,’ the Newcastle Daily Chronicle said. Much of the discussion of the case presented Whicher as a vulgar fool, too dense to see the truth, or else guilty of an assault on middle-class privacy. Once again, suspicion fell everywhere. Dickens, who took a keen interest in the case, was convinced that Elizabeth Gough and Samuel Kent were secret lovers, and killers. On 24 October, he wrote to Wilkie Collins outlining his hypothesis: ‘Mr Kent, intriguing with the nursemaid, poor little child wakes in Crib, and sits up, contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr Kent gashes body, to mystify discoverers, and disposes of same.’ Collins wasn’t satisfied with Whicher’s solution either. In The Moonstone, he translated Whicher into the original detective hero, Sergeant Cuff. Though Cuff is shrewd and sympathetic, his suspicions of the daughter of the house are misplaced. Collins transforms the sullen Constance into the lovely Rachel Verinder, a girl so heroic she is prepared to look suspicious for the sake of one she loves. In his preface, Collins wrote that the book is ‘built’ on ‘the conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl’. It was easier to believe in the adulterous passions of a father or a governess than in a vicious murder committed by a young girl.

After Constance was set free, Whicher returned to London, his reputation damaged. He took his clues with him: the bloody fragment of The Morning Star, a linen list and two clean nightdresses belonging to Constance. Unlike our fictional detectives, Whicher was denied that magical moment – Poirot in the library, Holmes lounging on his sofa at 221B – when all the loose ends are gathered up. As Summerscale writes, detective fiction is comforting, despite the gore, because of the element of order it provides. ‘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.’

Summerscale’s own narrative is profoundly absorbing, but for different reasons. In her introduction, she claims that the book is modelled on the country-house murder mystery. In fact, it is something altogether more interesting. In the classic murder mystery, everything leads up to the disclosure of the villain. Absolution comes after this and the mystery is cleared up. In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, by contrast, the reader is aware of the probable perpetrator from very early on. The tension – which is considerable – comes not from simple disclosure of an act, but from cumulative insights into the singular household at Road Hill, in which one mystery leads to another and all motivations are complicated. We are not running out of the labyrinth, but stopping and getting to know the Minotaur.

The book has an eery feeling for the textures of life at Road Hill House in the summer of 1860. Except for her (entirely understandable) partiality for Mr Whicher, Summerscale wisely refrains from showing her hand. Instead, she uses the killing as ‘a torch swung round onto sudden movements, into corners and up stairwells’. We learn the odd and meaningless details that history normally leaves out. The governess Elizabeth Gough drank a cup of tea on the night of the murder ‘from the general family teapot’ – something she didn’t usually do. Hours before he was killed, little Saville doodled on one of his father’s government reports. On the afternoon of the murder, the lawn was mown. The gardener – crippled in one leg – used a scythe, because the grass was too damp to use the normal mowing machine. That night, as always, the two eldest Kent daughters, Mary Ann and Elizabeth, shared a bedroom. Constance and her younger brother William (aged 14) each had their own room, because there was no one close enough in age and of the same sex to share with.

As Summerscale takes us deeper into the strange family life of the Kents and the aftermath of 1860, it becomes clear that rather than a household providing clues to a murder, a murder gives us clues to a household. We get sudden glimpses, both mundane (of whisky and water or black silk dresses) and extraordinary: ‘sexual transgression, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing’. As in The Moonstone, we obsessively revisit a single day from different angles. But there is no absolution. Guilt spreads, like blood.

In 1906, Summerscale notes, Freud compared his work to that of a detective: ‘In both we are concerned with a secret, with something hidden . . . In the case of a criminal it is a secret which he knows and hides from you, whereas in the case of the hysteric it is a secret which he himself does not know either, which is hidden even from himself.’ In Summerscale’s remarkable later chapters, where she traces the many peculiar twists that follow the story of the murder and its solution, we see that the two kinds of secret are not so distinct. Rational and consciously kept secrets – a hidden nightdress – may coexist with murkier riddles: jealousy for one sibling, love for another. Sane, clear and restrained, Summerscale, like Ariadne, hands us a ball of red thread and leaves us to make of it what we will.