A riddle in three dimensions
Semi-spoiler alert: Some of Kate Summerscale’s conclusions in “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” are presented but not all.
Modern detectives trace their lineage in world literature to Oedipus, whose search for his true identity has made him, to some critics, a sleuth dressed in sandals and Theban robes. But there’s another ancient tale just as fitting: the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. For isn’t Theseus’ adventure exactly what a detective does -- follow the maze that leads to the monster?
The myth of the Minotaur is highly visible today. There’s a new opera, “The Minotaur,” by composer Harrison Birtwistle, an exhibit in Manhattan, “From the Land of the Labyrinth,” and prominent pieces such as Salley Vickers’ meditation on the myth, prompted by the new opera, in the Guardian. In recent literature, there has been Victor Pelevin’s retelling of the myth for our Internet Age in “The Helmet of Horror” -- and don’t forget Rick Riordan’s reinvention for children, “The Battle of the Labyrinth.”
Though Road Hill House, the country estate depicted on the jacket of Summerscale’s “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” (Walker: 380 pp., $24.95), is located in the English countryside, it could just as well be in Crete. For early in this book about a real-life horrific murder in the mid-19th century, one realizes that Road Hill House is also a labyrinth containing a monster.
In 1860, the Kents and their servants awoke one morning to find that 3-year-old Saville, the youngest son of the family, was missing from his bed. A search of the house and grounds led to the discovery of the little boy’s body in a privy, his throat, the family physician said, “cut to the bone by some sharp instrument.” William Nutt, a shoemaker who helped find the child, attested to the savageness of the murder: “Its little head fell off almost,” he said, in magistrates’ court.
An open window in the drawing room seemed the killer’s place of entry, but because it could be unlatched only from the inside, the local police turned their attention to the family. The window, it seemed, had been an attempt to cause the police to suspect an intruder.
Though there was no evidence to be found, the early theory was that Saville’s nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, who slept in the same room with the boy, had murdered him because he had witnessed Gough in a liaison with a lover. Soon, gossip turned this lover into the boy’s father, Samuel Kent. The public -- then as now -- was agog at a crime with such macabre, salacious possibilities.
“The Road Hill case had spawned would-be sleuths among the readers of English newspapers,” Summerscale writes. “They sent their tips to the police.” The case whetted the public appetite for a new kind of literary hero, the detective, and Summerscale examines how this crime would soon be reflected in the characters and situations of such popular novels as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Lady Audley’s Secret,” Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White” and Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
After local police bungled the investigation, Jonathan Whicher, the finest of Scotland Yard’s detective-inspectors, was sent to the house. Whicher had distinguished himself in the police ranks pursuing -- and catching -- London criminals long after they thought they had gotten away with murder. Whicher had come up through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police, and Summerscale provides us with fascinating details of the life of a London bobby at the time: They wore thick leather collars to guard against “garotters” and covered a 7 1/2 -mile beat, always on the lookout for thieves, forgers, con men. Often, they were being watched themselves, by a sergeant who would make spot checks to ascertain that they weren’t drunk or fraternizing with the women along their route.
Whicher’s excellent arrest record led to his eventual transfer to an elite group of plainclothes officers. Dickens was in awe of them, writing: “They are, one and all, respectable-looking men of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence . . . with an air of keen observation and quick perception when addressed. . . . They have all good eyes; and they all can, and they all do, look full at whomsoever they speak to.” Dickens’ emphasis on the powers of scrutiny that detectives possessed is significant, for, as Summerscale explains, it was usually the overlooked detail that revealed the criminal. “A very little key will open a very heavy door,” Dickens wrote in his short story “Hunted Down.”
Whicher agreed that the killer was either a family member or one of the servants. But the reasons this murder had been committed, he felt, were more complicated than the lust theory captivating the public’s imagination. He had to explore the family circumstances, the relations between members. “To get at the inner thoughts and feelings of the Kent household was more a matter of instinct than logic,” Summerscale explains.
As unlikable as Samuel Kent was to many -- not only because of his work as a tough factory inspector but also because of his failings as a father -- Whicher didn’t believe he had killed his own youngest son to hide some scandalous affair. Others in the household had motivations, and he looked for clues (“clue,” Summerscale points out, derives from the clew of yarn Ariadne gave to Theseus to help him find his way out of the maze once he’d slain the Minotaur) in the family’s character -- a puzzle more labyrinthine than the house itself. As Summerscale notes, English families in the mid-19th century were extremely hostile to meddlesome outsiders. During the investigation, a national newspaper editorialized: “It is with this thoroughly innate feeling of security that every Englishman feels a strong sense of the inviolability of his own house. It is this that converts the moorside cottage into a castle.”
“Since the murder, Road Hill House had become a puzzle,” Summerscale writes, again evoking the imagery of the Minotaur and its labyrinth, “a riddle in three dimensions, its floor plans and furnishings an esoteric code. Whicher’s task was to decipher the house -- as a crime scene, and as a guide to the character of the family.”
IN THE familiar version of the Minotaur myth, King Minos of Crete blames the Athenians for the death of a beloved son. He imposes a tribute on that city, requiring that every nine years a group of seven Athenian youths and seven maidens enter the maze to be devoured by the Minotaur. The hero Theseus is included among a group of young men, slays the Minotaur while it sleeps and safely emerges, thanks to Ariadne’s thread.
That story has long fascinated us (who can forget the horror of Jack Nicholson lurching through a snowy hedge maze after little Danny in “The Shining”?). An organization called the Labyrinth Society notes that mazes can be found around the world. You’ll find turf and stone mazes in Cornwall, Sweden, Iceland and Arizona; Jeff Seward’s Labyrinthos site presents images of these.
And yet, as Robert Graves suggests in “The Greek Myths” (if you don’t own this yet, buy it now), the earliest mazes were probably just floor patterns followed in ritual dances. The labyrinth of Crete, he says, in reality probably wasn’t a giant maze at all. The palace of Knossos, the capital of Minos’ kingdom, is described by Graves as “a complex of rooms and corridors, and . . . the Athenian raiders had difficulty in finding and killing the king when they captured it. But this is not all. An open space in front of the palace was occupied by a dance floor with a maze pattern. . . . “
Add to this the fact that the palace, Graves tells us, was regarded as “the house of the labrys, or double-axe” and you get a compelling explanation for some sources of the myth. Treating the labyrinth as a palace of many rooms meshes well with descriptions of Road Hill House. Summerscale even includes the floor layouts that were published by the press at the time.
But the more challenging maze for Whicher consisted in the emotional relations among the Kent family members. Summerscale slowly unfolds her story with the skill of an Agatha Christie or a P.D. James (and in the author’s acknowledgments, James is thanked for her help). Despite its intense privacy, the Kent family revealed itself, under Whicher’s investigation, to be profoundly unhappy. The great source of tension was Samuel Kent’s remarriage, after his first wife’s death, to the family governess, Mary Pratt. The children of the second marriage were favored over the children of the first, and Whicher turned his “air of keen observation” on Constance, one of Kent’s older daughters, for two very slight reasons: her reportedly cool demeanor right after the murder and a missing nightdress.
Whicher eventually pressed the local magistrates to arrest Constance in Saville’s murder. He found much that was persuasive. Her stepmother was cruel to her, giving her a reasonable motive for revenge. Her schoolmates testified to her open dislike of Saville and her other half-siblings. There was also an alleged strain of madness that Constance may have inherited from her mother. These were circumstances far more serpentine and complicated than a lovers’ tryst interrupted. Although Whicher scoured the estate grounds, the missing nightdress -- which he believed would have been stained with Saville’s blood -- was never found.
The lack of concrete evidence and Constance’s cool denial of the charges led the magistrates to drop the case against her. Whicher was humiliated. A parody in Punch, the author tells us, celebrated an “Inspector Watcher” of the “Defective Police.” Whicher went on to other assignments, and the murder remained unsolved until five years later, when Constance was living as a boarder at St. Mary’s Home in Brighton, “the closest thing to a convent that the Church of England could offer.” She confessed to the murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. On her release, she moved to Australia and lived to be 100. She never said anything further about the crime.
That silence bothers Summerscale. What hovers around Whicher’s theories, and Summerscale’s, is a sense that something is still missing. There is that cool demeanor once again, when Constance confesses, and elements of her murder account contradict that of investigators. Summerscale conjectures that Constance took the blame to draw attention away from someone else. This is exactly what Whicher reported to his superiors. It is also, the author points out, what happens in “The Moonstone.” It is a fascinating literary parallel. I won’t tell you who that possible accomplice might have been. Suffice to say, Constance’s conviction may have left another beast to wander the labyrinth.
That the Minotaur myth has been evoked in so many different ways, in so many varied works of art, is extraordinary. How did the Greeks do it? How did they come up with a story with such universal appeal? It seems somehow feeble simply to say they were brilliant storytellers -- “brilliant” is a word too much of our age. It does, however, apply to Summerscale’s book. “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” is a brilliant reconstruction of the obstacles facing detectives long before the advent of forensic technology.
Nick Owchar is the deputy editor of Book Review. The Siren’s Call appears monthly.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.