The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the forthcoming TV murder mystery starring Peter Capaldi and Paddy Considine, is based on the bestselling book by Kate Summerscale that tells the true story of a gruesome Victorian country house murder. Three-year-old Saville Kent was snatched from his cot, taken outside and brutally killed.
A narrow village street is packed with extras who have gathered around the small stone Temperance Hall straining to hear the verdict on who committed the horrific crime. The camera pushes through the crowd to see what is going on inside. The raggedy villagers are in muddy boots and dusty clothes. Suddenly, from inside, there is a massive cheer and the sound of wild applause. The rustle of excitement spreads through the street. But the camera refuses to join in the fun. It sneaks aside and follows Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher (Considine), who has emerged from the courtroom stony-faced. The judgment, it is clear, has not gone his way and he is being rattled by the mob. 'Mr Whicher! Mr Whicher! Have you anything to say?' He pushes past silently, climbs into a waiting trap and shouts, 'Onwards!' It is less of a command, more of a battle cry.
On June 30 1860 Saville Kent, the youngest son of the well-to-do family who lived in Road Hill House, a three-storey Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, was discovered in the privy, a large cesspool about 10ft deep and 7ft square, with his throat cut. It soon became apparent that someone sleeping in the house must have committed the crime because all the windows and doors were bolted from the inside. The local police failed to make a convincing arrest in the first few weeks and there was an outcry in the national press. A detective was dispatched from Scotland Yard to investigate. Whicher's probing uncovered the secrets of Road Hill House, and what he found reeked. Samuel Kent's first wife was said to be insane. She had 10 children, of whom five died at birth or in infancy, and she lived more or less confined to a wing of the house while Samuel took up with the governess, Mary Pratt. When the first Mrs Kent died in her early forties, he married Mary, who went on to have Saville, the murdered boy, and two other children.
Adultery was only part of the deception. Samuel Kent appeared to be a wholly plausible country gent, but was in fact living well beyond his means. He was a civil servant – an inspector of factories – and his country house was rented. The villagers disliked him because he prosecuted them for trespassing on his land and poaching from his rivers. And the children from his first family resented him (especially William and Constance) because he clearly favoured the children from his second family, who included the murdered boy.
The case became a classic tabloid tale. Murderers, after all, were supposed to be found on the desperate streets of London, not in the bedrooms of grand country houses. England was outraged (and riveted). There were questions in the House of Commons, and people turned detective, writing to newspapers, to the home secretary and to Scotland Yard with their tips.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House, Summerscale's story of the investigation, was a big hit, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008 and the British Book Awards the following year. Hat Trick Productions, the independent production company, optioned the book soon after it was published in 2008.
'It's a period drama that's not the norm,' the producer, Nigel Marchant, explains. 'It was such a horrific tale and we often think these things are modern day, but to look back and see these things happened 150 years ago is extraordinary.' The fact that the body of Samuel Kent lies in a Wiltshire churchyard certainly adds a frisson to the story. 'As with the cases of James Bulger or Madeleine McCann, we find it unbelievable that these awful crimes happen. You just can't comprehend it. But there's a fascination at the same time.'
The key problem, though, is that Summerscale's book is poised between the thrill of a whodunit – we have to guess which member of the family turns out to be the murderer – and the cool rigour of a historical document.
'It was a challenge because it would have made a great documentary, and obviously drama is different,' admits Neil McKay, the Bafta Award-winning television writer whose cv is built on dramatising real lives such as the Moors murderers (See No Evil) and Peter Sutcliffe (The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper). He goes on, 'It took a lot of drafts, to be honest, and in Kate's book, Whicher is discharged from the Metropolitan Police diagnosed as having "congestion on the brain", and there were times when I had to say to Mark Redhead [the executive producer], I think I've got the same problem.'
McKay's solution was to focus on Whicher as the central consciousness of the story. You see the murder, the investigation, the family and the village through his eyes. As a viewer you know as much as he knows. So, it is a story within a story; not only a whodunit, but also an emotional tale of a personal crisis.
And in this, of course, McKay took his cue from Summerscale. She admits that she was 'very taken' with Jack Whicher, and her admiration for his working-class roots, taciturn nature and mental speed spreads through her book. Indeed, it was Whicher, 'the prince of detectives', as he was dubbed by a colleague, who helped convince her to write the book in the first place.
Whicher, born in Camberwell the son of a gardener, was one of the original eight detectives in the force in Scotland Yard in 1842. 'He was appointed on the basis of his ingenious reasoning and the confidence of his hunches,' Summerscale says. When Whicher was sent to Road Hill House he was 45 and had a string of successes behind him. He had apprehended a thief who had made off with a Leonardo da Vinci, and aided the hunt for some revolutionaries who had attempted the assassination of Napoleon III in Paris.
'He very quickly caught on to who Saville's killer was,' Summerscale says. 'His task was to prove it and in this he didn't succeed. He was much maligned by the press and his career was destroyed by the investigation. What is ironic is that Whicher got it right – down to the details of how the murderer had managed to conceal the details of the crime. He almost lost his mind over it and had a nervous breakdown. And all that seemed a very vivid story. He acts as an emblem for how terrible and diverse the consequences of murder can be.'
Summerscale first came across the case in a 19th-century anthology of famous mysteries in the London Library. She was struck by it, investigated further and found The Great Crime of 1860 by Joseph Stapleton, one of the surgeons who conducted the post mortem and a Kent family friend. He also repeatedly alluded to Whicher. So Summerscale tracked down his police reports at the National Archives at Kew in London. 'Long reports, in his handwriting, and I realised how passionate he'd become and how deeply he felt it, and that took me by surprise,' she says. 'He didn't remain detached, even though he was this quiet, observer-type figure. He got caught up in it.'
'There have been other books on the case, but Kate's genius was to put Whicher at the centre of the story, so it's told from the inside,' Mark Redhead points out. 'The other books told it from the outside.'
The truth that Whicher guessed at finally emerged when the murderer confessed in 1865. Whicher regained his emotional health and went on to marry (a widow in the house in London where he was lodging) and have a second career as a private investigator. The new breed of analytical detectives inspired other writers, including Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (who knew about Jack Whicher). Previously the trend in crime stories had been to focus on dashing crooks.
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'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' is on ITV1 on April 25