The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Pub Date: 12 Jul 2016
Author Kate Summerscale rose to prominence back in 2008 with the publication of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, a Victorian-era Scotland Yard investigation of a murder on a country estate. The book, based on actual events, was a hugely enjoyable tale of Victorian crime, which was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction 2008, and became an International Bestseller. She has proved adept at turning long forgotten Victorian events into compelling modern stories. It is a talent she demonstrates once again in her latest book ‘ The Wicked Boy’.
The book takes as its subject the murder, in 1895, of a young mother by one of her sons, 13 year old Robert Coombes.
The reporting of the trail and trial transcripts themselves take up a big chunk of the first half of the book: indeed, at first, I wasn’t sure if all we were going to get is the tale of murder and subsequent trial – and indeed whether or not the true murderer is on trial or not. Was Robert driven to commit his crime by reading violent ‘penny dreadful’ novels?, did he have help from his younger brother Nattie? Is he covering for Nattie? The story of the trail is fascinating and what Summerscale skilfully does is add context, explaining the thinking of the time and actually providing a more complete picture than would have been available to anyone at the time of the ideas, beliefs and rational at work within the English legal and mental health systems. And even within the confines of the story of the trial – and the information available at the time – you may find yourself surprised by the trial and the thoughts of the jury.
But there is more to the story than a trial. You get that plus the book taking you on a journey into life inside Broadmoor (probably not what you expect); through the first and second world wars and beyond. That it does this is to the credit of Summerscale’s detecting, research and writing skills. In her hands Robert Coombes emerges as a truly fascinating and complex character. You are not forced to like him, indeed, you may not, but it is hard not to be engaged by his story.
A fine slice of popularist