A bizarre murder in Victorian England

The unsolved mystery created a kind of hysteria in Britain and broke a good Scotland Yard Detective.

As writers go through various stages of their writing careers, they may develop a recognizable style, or a specific talent that generates a definite reputation. For author Kate Summerscale, it is her ability to place readers right into the Victorian world. Her use of vivid detail in costume, mannerisms, and surroundings is brilliant.

An example is her telling of a bizarre murder. On June 30, 1860, in an elegant house in Wiltshire, family members awakened to find one of the members absent. When they searched for the youngest family member, three year old Saville Kent, he was found in an outdoor privy, murdered.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or, The Murder on Hill House Road is an account of this murder, but it is more so about the sad tale of a celebrated detective of the day, Jack Whicher. Scotland Yard dispatched him to investigate the case. Summerscale takes us through his dogged detective work and his lack of support for his conclusions about who committed the dreadful deed. This damaged a sterling detective career and left him broken.

Kate Summerscale Photo Credit: Sidney Morning Herald

This unsolved mystery had created a kind of hysteria in Britain and Mr. Whicher’s nosing around did not help matters. Detective Whicher was right, of course, but it took over five years for him to be vindicated. If you like Victorian True Crime, this book is probably for you. It is available in PB (372 pp), HC, and Kindle.

As for Ms. Summerscale, she is also the author of Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. In this true story, a widow, Isabella Walker married Henry Robinson in 1844. After time, she came to realize that she would have to beg for his attentions. He was aloof, unapproachable, and away from home for extended periods as a civil engineer.

To divert herself from her loneliness and neglect, Isabella developed a crush on a married doctor named Lane. The romance was all in her head. She made the mistake—or not—of recording her fantasies about Lane in a diary, which Henry Robinson found and read. He petitioned for divorce on grounds of adultery, although no actual adultery had occurred.

These circumstances sent a shock wave through a society that was hanging on to its rigid ways. They had to re-think their opinions of female roles, marriage and most of all privacy, because of this scandalous event. The book is available in PB (302pp), HC, and Kindle.

Another Victorian crime, and it is horrific, is documented by Summerscale in The Wicked Boy.   In 1895, two young brothers, twelve and thirteen, are seen in East London’s docklands spending large amounts of cash on food, theaters, and other entertainments. When a suspicious aunt demands to be let into the home, the boys are booked for matricide. Robert Coombes is sent to Broadmoor lunatic asylum for the murder of his mother.

Brother Nattie had copped a plea and was released. In Broadmoor, Robert is able to redeem himself somewhat, as Summerscale explains. The Wicked Boy is available in PB, HC, and Kindle. Kate has also written a book about a true life character, The Queen of Whale City.

Ms. Summerscale is a Somerset Maugham Award Winner and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Dark Continent Continental. Please click HERE to purchase the book.

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  • Sara Marie Hogg

    I must make a correction. My eyes have failed me and every time I read the title of one of Kate’s books, the eyes translate the word “Cay” into “City.” I did not even realize the error until I had gotten a copy of The Queen of Whale Cay and was in the middle of reading it. I so regret this. The book, The Queen of Whale City is actually The Queen of Whale Cay. Please accept my apology. Even though in this book, Kate leaves her Victorian subject matter, it is indeed a “whale of a story.” It sort of fell in her lap when she was asked to write an obit for the subject of the book. Information on the woman and her ancestors was hard to find, but nose them out she did, and she has woven a wonderful tale–and it is true. Thank you readers…

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