The subtitle to this is ‘A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective’ which is a fairly melodramatic summing up. All murder is shocking, in its own way, surely? As for the undoing of the great Victorian detective, he failed to get a conviction, which is hardly the world’s worst offence. But I suppose ‘Case Dismissed for Lack of Evidence’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, and although the detective in question was castigated for supposedly mishandling the case, he was subsequently vindicated. Not much of an undoing.
The murder itself, in 1860, and the events surrounding it, are actually quite a small part of the book. A three year old boy is removed from his cot in the middle of the night, has his throat cut and the body stuffed down an outside privy. The difficulty is that the house was securely locked up, so that only one of the inmates - twelve members of a middle class family and their servants - could have done it. There is a lot of detail given about precisely where everyone was and what they did and at what time, all gleaned from official accounts or other contemporary documents, but this is not an Agatha Christie novel, where everyone has a motive. The local police soon devise a favoured theory and pinpoint a suspect, but there’s a lack of evidence. So a detective is despatched from London to solve the case. He has a different theory and suspect, but again there’s no evidence beyond the circumstantial.
In a work of fiction, a story like this would be filled with a gradually revealed pattern of clues, but real life is not so neat. Instead, the author tells us a great deal of mundane detail about train times and weather and laundry arrangements and the entire life histories of the family members, the servants, the local people and the detective. There are maps and family trees and lists of principal characters and photographs. There are prices for items, and menus, and descriptions of people and places. Undoubtedly a lot of research has been done, but the dry-as-dust presentation and the choppy arrangement of it, hopping about from one character to another, remove any sense of engagement with the characters or the situation. It reads like a poorly organised research paper. There wasn’t much drama, either, despite the inherently sensational nature of the murder itself. The most interesting aspect (for me), the detective’s theory of whodunit (the suspicions of the title) and his reasons for that, are barely mentioned in passing, so that he appears to jump to that conclusion almost by instinct, and not by detective work at all.
The author has made some attempt to draw out significant aspects of social history which are relevant to the case. The policy of training specialised detectives for serious crimes was in its infancy, and this particular murder was a notable failure. There was also a certain amount of disparagement from local worthies and the press about the working class detectives setting out to scrutinise the respectable lives of their betters. Fictionalised detective stories began at about this time, and the country house murder behind locked doors was an inspiration for an entire genre. To my mind, the most shocking information was the family tree. The patriarch had fathered ten children by his first wife, of whom no less than five died in infancy and another as a young man, and a further five by his second wife (formerly the governess), one of whom was the murdered boy. Both wives died young.
In the end, there is a resolution of sorts, although (as with all such high-profile crimes) there continued to be doubts ever after about the exact sequence of events, and where the blame truly lay. The book is not the most well-presented I’ve ever seen, and is too loaded down with dull, irrelevant detail, nor do the characters and their desires and motivations ever really come to life, but perhaps it is in the nature of a factual book like this to scrupulously lay out all the possibilities, rather than over-dramatising the author’s preferred version of events. I found it a quick, easy read, engrossing in parts and mostly enjoyable. Three stars.