Summerscale's Book Is Strong on Careful Research

Article excerpt

Kate Summerscale's book won the prestigious BBC4 Samuel Johnson Prize for |non-fiction last year against stiff opposition, and it is easy to see why.

It's a fascinating dissection of a famous murder that took place in a small Wiltshire village in June 1860, one that |became a cause celebre for a Victorian reading public newly introduced to sensational journalism and crime detection as a scientific pursuit.

In England, the first detective service was introduced in 1842, and the archetypal fictional detective, rational, analytical, observant, all-seeing, had already grabbed the popular imagination. Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens and Wilkie Collins had begun exploring the horrors that might lurk within the iconic Victorian household, revealing the dark underbelly of middle-class |respectability.

The cruel murder of four-year-old Saville Kent in Road Hill House in the summer of 1860 had all the hallmarks of the classic country house whodunit, a murder mystery of dark doings and intrigue behind closed doors. The child was found with his throat slit in an outside privy, having been removed from his bed in the dark of night. All agreed it was an inside job.

The first celebrity detective, Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, was despatched to investigate. Journalists descended on the village of Road, ready to play detective themselves, to draw their own conclusions on what dark secrets animated the Kent family, and who the guilty party might be. Every detail of the life of the family and the household was paraded before the public gaze. There had been a dizzying expansion in the |local press up and down Britain in the recent past, feeding an insatiable popular hunger for drama. Tax on papers had been lifted in the 1850s, and the spread of the electric telegraph greatly facilitated communications. What Summerscale is uncovering for us in this book is, in fact, the beginnings of the modern media age.

The Kent family certainly had its secrets. Samuel Kent, a factory inspector, had two wives, the first of whom spent her later years locked away, allegedly insane, although that didn't prevent her from having 10 children, four of whom were still alive in 1860. Her place was taken by Mary Pratt, the children's nurse, who had found her way into the marital bed long before the first wife died in 1852. The murdered boy, Saville, was a child of Samuel's marriage to Pratt.

The jealousies and antagonisms bred by this complicated family history provide the context for the murder mystery. It is worth remembering that the Road murder took place a year after Darwin's Origin of Species was published, with its promise that none of the secrets of our existence is above scrutiny by the enquiring scientific mind. …