The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

A nonfiction history that moves with all the twists of a mystery novel, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher offers layers of surprises. Summerscale’s book details the real-life 1860 kidnapping and murder of a 3-year-old child on a British country estate, and how the crimes were solved by a brilliant Scotland Yard inspector named Jonathan Whicher.

The author offers clues and a vivid portrait of an upper-middle-class Victorian-era family and its servant class. The Kents certainly had enough family drama — multiple marriages, jealous stepchildren, devious hired help — to power a BBC miniseries. Summerscale’s material seems bottomlessly rich; she makes the case that Whicher was, to varying degrees, the prototype for literary detectives in novels from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Shrewd and intuitive, Whicher was also, she writes, ”kind, laconic, alert to comedy.”

In a remarkable development (don’t worry — this isn’t a spoiler), Whicher’s deduction about what took place was not, at first, deemed to be the correct one. It’s a good thing the book commences with a list of the major players in the saga — the names and positions of the Kents’ servants are a tad confusing. But most of the time, this is one eloquent doozy of a true-crime thriller. A-