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In June 1860, three year old Saville Kent was brutally murdered during the night, taken from his bed in his family’s manor in Wiltshire and stabbed to death, his body finally being thrown into an outhouse.  As the manor had been securely locked overnight, it was immediately apparent that someone inside the house must have killed the child.  Thus began a true “manor house mystery” that would inspire mystery writers for years to come.  The murder occurred at a time when detectives had just begun to appear in law enforcement, as well as in literature.  Some viewed men like detective Jonathan Whicher as gods of genius, piecing together seemingly unconnected bits of a story to reach justice.  Others saw detectives in a more sinister light:  as voyeurs or spies who pried into people’s private lives and exposed their family secrets without discretion–a horrible thought for Victorians.

Summerscale explores these tensions in her account of the Saville Kent murder.  She tells the story in the style of a murder mystery novel, following the detective and his investigation, and keeping readers in the dark until the truth is finally revealed in the final chapters.  She also weaves the literary history of the detective into her narrative, as well as the origins of words we now take for granted–such as clue and sleuth.  I had difficulty putting this book down, mostly because I wanted to find out who actually committed the crime, but also because I found it fascinating how the real history of detectives was interwoven with the development of the detective mystery genre, each influencing the other.  (For example, Whicher was a personal friend of Charles Dickens.)  I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries, true crime, or Victorian Gothic literature.

If you like historical mysteries, you might like Tess Gerritsen’s novel The Bone Garden.

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