A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
385 pages. Includes maps, photos and notes.
This is not just a true crime story, but it is also a history of the early years of criminal investigation at Scotland Yard, of mystery novels themselves, and their place in Victorian England.
The crime is gruesome: a three-year-old child has been abducted from his bed, slashed and stabbed, and discarded in a privy (an outhouse). Who committed the murder? Was the father concealing an affair with the governess? Did the children of the first wife, who suffered from madness, take revenge on the favored son of the new wife? Or was it the work of the villagers, who resented the father's enforcement of child labor laws?
When the crime isn't quickly solved, public pressure leads to sending in one of the detectives from Scotland Yard - Mr. Whicher, a quiet man with an instinct for solving crimes. Can he find a solution when the local police lose evidence and conceal facts? Will Victorian society tolerate a working-class detective prying into affairs of the upper classes, disturbing the privacy of an English home, and taking an unseemly interest into women's undergarments and tales from girls school? And can the legal system of the day bring the murderer to justice?
As the author uses this crime as a means of explaining the history and methods of Scotland Yard's first detectives, she also shows how this crime influenced generations of mystery writers.
The book is told in chronological order, revealing facts as they came to light (even years later), relating the various trials, and eventually tracing all the major characters through to their deaths. This approach has its advantages, but does make the book at times a slow slog of a read. And when the reader is convinced that the mystery may never be solved... the final evidence is revealed, decades later, from a mysterious source.
I found this book to be a long, wandering, difficult, frustrating but ultimately rewarding read. There is the double pay-off of not just understanding the crime, but also seeing how Victorian society perceived the role of detectives through the course of the 19th Century.
Wargamers with an interest in Victorian detectives will find the background material essential for English campaigns.
I read this book in its second Kindle (reprint) edition, which I picked up as a Book of the Day sale item from Amazon. This book has also been made into a TV movie of the same name.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .