Back in 2008 I posted a review of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, explaining why it was a perfect book for me. I loved The Wicked Boy as much if not more. Both are wonderfully researched, beautifully written accounts of true crime stories from the 19th century.
Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey in 1895. This is the story of Robert Coombes’ crime and life thereafter as an inmate of Broadmoor prison. His was indeed an interesting life. But this book is much more than a simple biography or true crime story.
First, it is painstakingly researched with a wealth of interesting detail. Summerscale sidetracks constantly, telling us often minute details of the lives of the many, many people involved in Coombes’ story. In the process she builds an intimate picture of life at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th century, through little details about ordinary people that reveal not just events, but the life and values of Coombes’ contemporaries. Here’s an example:
“The coroner was […]. His most recent case…was an enquiry into a series of deaths at the East Ham sewage works. On 1 July an employee at the sewage pumping station had become dizzy with fumes as he climbed down a ladder into a well; he lost his balance and fell in. One of his workmates descended the ladder to try to help, but collapsed and fell into the pit as the sewer gases overtook him; three more men attempted rescues, and every one fainted and fell. All five drowned in the filth at the bottom of the well.”
It’s one short paragraph that is an aside to the mention of the name of the coroner. The account is dry and factual, and yet the tragedy of the event is vivid. The valour and selflessness of these workers shines through, as one man after another falls and dies while attempting to save his workmates, even though each must have realised the danger to himself.
The book is packed with fascinating stories told like this, alongside the main thread. Moreover, the author frequently returns to these side stories to recount subsequent events, giving a sense of continuity.
The other aspect of the book I loved is the outlining of the evolution of psychological theory during Coombes’ lifetime; the different theories around criminal motivation, the blame placed on penny dreadfuls (as today it is placed on computer games), the psychological reasons for different inmates being committed to Broadmoor, and the approaches of the different wardens during Coombes’ 17 years as an inmate. That institution – which I had always thought to be a terrifying, vicious place, is revealed as quite other than its popular reputation would have us believe. (I read a lot of books about psychology and this one confirms my suspicion that despite all our knowledge about the workings of our brains, we are almost as ignorant today of the workings of the human mind as we were 120 years ago.)
And finally, there is the writing style. I could read nothing but Kate Summerscale for a year and never tire of it. It is cool, unsensational, factual and yet a deep humanity is in evidence in every page. Without drama or overt emotion, there is nonetheless a distinct poignancy. The world depicted by Summerscale is peopled not with angels and monsters, but with all-too-human, frail and vulnerable, mean and weak, but also kind and brave, children, men and women.
This is a story of a child’s crime. But it is also a story of the evil and hurt that many people have to live through. It is a story of pain, but also of transcendance and redemption.
In short, it’s a beautiful work, and one that will stay with me.
Thanks to Penguin Press for sending me an advance copy of this book. All of my reviews are 100% unbiased, no matter how I acquire the book.
Find The Wicked Boy on Amazon and at other bookstores.