What’s it about?
Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord’s. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool. Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents’ valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, a strange smell began to emanate from the building.
When the police were finally called to investigate, the discovery they made sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm, and Robert and Nattie were swept up in a criminal trial that echoed the outrageous plots of the ‘penny dreadful’ novels that Robert loved to read.
In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale has uncovered a fascinating true story of murder and morality – it is not just a meticulous examination of a shocking Victorian case, but also a compelling account of its aftermath, and of man’s capacity to overcome the past.
I was lucky enough to attend a Waterstone’s event with Kate Summerscale in May which was an incredibly fascinating talk into the research for this book. Books that are developed from a snippet of a story, like something you read in an old newspaper, truly fascinate me. I would love to have the resources and time to dig around in archives and discover stories like this but wouldn’t know where to start.
Fortunately the actual act of the murder plays a small part in this book although there are some crime scene descriptions which do over-emphasise too much on the maggots for my liking.
The author also concentrates quite a lot on the significance of the Penny Dreadfuls (my interpretation was that they were the Victorian equivalent of a comic like The Beano or something along those lines) and the effect they had on Robert and if they provoked him to commit the murder which reminded me of the controversy over the impact of modern day violent video games.
I did find the psychological descriptions and theories a little overkill for me and I did find myself drifting off during those passages.
Essentially the book is a social commentary of the time, you get an insight into the justice system, trials and punishment which are the parts I found the most interesting. Therefore I was glad to see mention of the McNaghten Test which is a test in a law to assess criminal insanity which I studied during my degree. What surprised me the most was what seemed to be leniency in the defendant’s sentences when it came to mental capacity in the event of a crime. From what I read, it could be possible to get away with murder! The stories of those who were sent to Broadmoor read more like a stay on a country estate.
Without giving away the outcome the book comes to a very satisfactory ending although I would have liked to hear more from Nattie, the younger brother. All in all I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in Victorian non-fiction and crimes of that time.
Author links: Website
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