Subtitled “The Mystery of A Victorian Child Murderer” this is the first Kate Summerscale I have read since “Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. I really enjoyed her examination of detective work in its infancy. In that book the author took a case from 1860 and provided us with a leisurely trawl through the facts and all the relevant documents. It was well-detailed and thoroughly researched and very readable. Her latest book is just as good.
I began this book with no idea as to what was to happen. It is 1895 and thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his twelve year old brother Nattie seem to be having a whale of a time- changing coins of large value, going off to Lords to see the cricket and going to the theatre. These boys have a secret and a plan. They tell neighbours that their mother is away and get a naive adult male friend of their fathers’s to come and stay with them. The revelation of their secret is as much a shock to him as it is to the local Plaistow residents.
All three are initially arrested for the crime and its aftermath and the trial makes fascinating reading. The press latch onto Robert’s treasured collection of “penny dreadful” comics and the simmering debate as to what is suitable material for children to read explodes. I found this theme one of the most absorbing features of Summerscale’s analysis.
The book becomes a study of “suitable” punishment for a child. Although it looks like the jury advocated clemency it actually made the punishment initially seem more severe but this is also a story of retribution and it is far from over at the end of the trial.
Sketch of the Coombes brothers on trial
The adult lives of those who committed terrible crimes in childhood does hold a morbid fascination for me and in researching this Summerscale stumbled upon information which led her story into a completely different direction taking her to some of the most notorious battlefields of the First World War.
The motive for Robert’s crime was never clear but so much else has been found out about him. It is a sobering, grisly but ultimately quite life-enhancing tale. I’m aware that by jumping to this book I’ve missed out a couple of Summerscale works, (“The Queen Of Whale Cay” and “Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace”) and normally I’m a great one for reading books in publication order but I was drawn to the author returning to murder and just couldn’t wait to read this. I think she is excellent at bringing old crimes alive and at making her accounts of cases both highly readable and relevant to today.
The Wicked Boy was published in April 2016 by Bloomsbury. Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.