This is a tricksy book to fit into an appropriate forum; part true-crime, part socio-historical drama, part literary discussion...so I am sticking it in here unless someone can come up with a better forum.
In 1860, at the country pile of the Kent family, young Saville Kent just 3 years old, was taken from his room during the night and brutally murdered. Jonathan Whicher, a hot-shot policeman, star of the newly-formed detective squad in London, was called to investigate.
Everyone in the village, rightly appalled by this crime, had an opinion. It was Samuel Kent, the over-bearing father, that committed the crime because Saville wandered into the bedroom whilst his father was having extra-curricular activities with the nanny; it was the nanny herself who killed the toddler because he found her up to no good in the household or with his father; it was one of the children from Samuel's first marriage jeaous of the newer siblings or angry with their step-mother who shunned them after the birth of her own children.
Whicher, after studying the evidence, most of which hung on a missing night-gown, proposed a theory and a suspect. No one agreed with him and after a lengthy period of investigation he was ostracized and humiliated.
This case proved to be a definitive true-crime case in many ways. The confusion, the story, the use of the new 'detective', crime detection and methodology, public gossip and suspicion...made this one of the first cases to be discussed by everyone. Public fervour for the events never died and interest in the 'detective' and his methodology gripped the nation. People were putting themselves in Whicher's place, becoming amateur detective and submitting myraid theories as to the perpetrator. The case inspired detective fiction as we know it now. From Poe's first detective to Collin's fiction, to Dickens's and so on.
Summerscale does a grand job of interweaving details of the crime, of the family, of the village with references and evidence in the detective fiction of the 19thC and onwards. She touches deftly upon the socio-historical climate of the 1860s, all in such a way to make for a gripping and hugely informative book. If you are particularly interested in 19th C literature then this book will interest you greatly. But it is as gripping as a true-crime read.