Saville Kent disappeared during the night, only to be found the next day, stuffed down an outdoor privy with his neck slashed. After the local police were unable to solve the crime, renowned London Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher was dispatched to the town of Road to investigate.
Because the child was taken from a second-floor bedroom where his sister and a nursemaid also slept, a room adjacent to his parents’ bedroom, Whicher quickly concluded that the killer must have been a member of the household. There were six family members over the age of 14 plus three adult servants under the roof.
Press speculation was rampant. Among the suspects were the father, Samuel Kent, and the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough.
But a missing nightdress – could it be missing because it was covered with blood? – focused suspicion on Saville’s 16-year-old half-sister, Constance.
Whicher was the most competent detective of his era, but the evidence was scant and inconclusive. Both Gough and Constance Kent were arrested and released.
The fact that no one was held to account in a court of law mattered little in the court of public opinion. Gough, Constance and Samuel Kent and all others in the house that night were shadowed by suspicion for years. Failure to crack the case wrecked Whicher’s career.
Author Kate Summerscale recreates the investigation and overlays it with descriptions of the development of the world’s first detective squad (Whicher was the best of London’s first eight detectives) as well as the coinciding development of detective fiction.