Traces the 1860 murder of a young child whose death launched a national obsession with detection throughout England, nearly destroyed the career of a top Scotland Yard investigator, and inspired the birth of modern detective fiction.
The Victorians made a romance of detection. In a newly uncertain world, a detective seemed to offer science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos. He turned brutal crimes—the vestiges of the beast in man—into intellectual puzzles. He was a secular substitute for a prophet or a priest. Yet the Victorians also made a fetish of privacy, and many felt that the investigation at Road Hill amounted to a violation of the middle-class home. Mr Whicher exposed the corruptions within the household: sexual transgression, emotional cruelty, scheming servants, wayward children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing. The scene he uncovered aroused fear (and excitement) at the thought of what might be hiding behind the closed doors of other respectable houses. His conclusions helped to create an era of voyeurism and suspicion, in which the detective was a shadowy figure, a demon as well as a demigod.