It’s July 1895 and Robert and Nattie Coombes could be any two young boys enjoying the hot summer weather. They go to see a cricket match, they play in the park, they take a trip to the seaside and they go fishing. Their father, a ship’s steward, is at sea and the boys tell anyone who asks that their mother is visiting her sister in Liverpool and that a family friend, John Fox, is staying with them while she’s away. However, there is more to the situation than meets the eye and it’s not long before the neighbours grow concerned. Why did Emily Coombes not mention to anyone that she was going away – and what is that horrible smell drifting down from the bedroom upstairs?
When the police are eventually called to the house at 35 Cave Road, they make a shocking discovery: it seems that Emily Coombes has been there all the time, her dead body decomposing in the summer heat. Her eldest son, Robert, immediately confesses to stabbing his mother to death ten days earlier. In the trial which follows, the court attempts to make sense of this terrible crime. Robert is only thirteen years old (one year older than his brother, Nattie); what would make a boy of this age commit such a cruel and cold-blooded act?
This may sound like the plot of a crime novel, but it’s not – it’s actually a true story and the events I’ve been describing above really did take place in London’s East End in 1895. In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale gives an account of the murder, the inquest and the trial, exploring some of the factors which may have led to Robert’s actions before going on to look at what happened to him after he was found guilty.
This is the third book I’ve read (or attempted to read) by Summerscale. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which was also based on a true crime, but I found Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, about a Victorian divorce scandal, difficult to get into and I abandoned it after a few chapters. I’m pleased to report that I liked The Wicked Boy much more than Mrs Robinson, though not as much as Mr Whicher, which had a stronger mystery element. There’s really no mystery at all about the Robert Coombes case; we know almost from the beginning what the crime is and who is responsible for it. Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no more questions to be asked. The official verdict was that Robert was “guilty but insane” and no clear motive was ever identified, but Summerscale does devote a large portion of the book to discussing Robert’s childhood and family background in an attempt to understand what could drive a thirteen-year-old boy to kill his mother.
Where the murder and the trial themselves are concerned, Summerscale sticks to the facts and doesn’t resort to too much speculation or personal opinion. However, she also spends a lot of time looking at what life was like in general for working-class Londoners towards the end of the Victorian era. Robert and Nattie Coombes would have been among the first generations to be educated at the new Board Schools which were established after the Elementary Education Act of 1870, but there were many people who believed that making education available to everyone was a bad idea. It meant that more children were able to read and therefore had access to ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap adventure novels aimed at boys which were thought to be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Robert Coombes had a collection of these sensational stories, something that was seized upon in the same way that people sometimes blame violent video games for encouraging modern day teenagers to commit crimes.
I found all of this fascinating to read about, but was slightly less interested in the second half of the book which covers Robert’s time at Broadmoor, the asylum where he was sent after his trial, and what happened after he was released. I understand why the author wanted to follow Robert’s story through to its conclusion, but I just didn’t have enough interest in him as a person to want to read such a long account of his later life. Apart from this, I did enjoy reading The Wicked Boy and am glad I gave Kate Summerscale another chance after my disappointment with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.