In July 1865, a 13-year-old London boy named Robert Coombs murdered his mother Emily. After the murder, he and his 12-year-old brother Nattie attended cricket matches, played games, and went fishing, all the while claiming their mother was away visiting family. When her body is discovered, rotting away in a back room, Robert stands trial for the crime.
Kate Summerscale presents a straightforward and focused account of Robert’s life, gathering information from court transcripts, newspaper archives, and more. She even finds someone who knew Robert, although that story is reserved for the book’s epilogue.
Summerscale sticks very closely to Robert’s own story, which, for the most part, is a good thing. She keeps tangents about penny dreadfuls and treatment of Broadmoor inmates brief, always coming back to Robert and what his experiences were like. She also avoids extensive speculation about what Robert was thinking, leaving most of that to those who testify in Robert’s trial. At times, this straightforward approach feels a little rote and lifeless, but I appreciated Summerscale’s discipline. And Robert’s story offers enough material of interest to keep me reading. It raises questions about evil, about nature and nurture, about mental illness, about the potential for reform, and about the innocence (or not) of children. Summerscale doesn’t pursue these questions in depth, but they’re very much present.
Much of Robert’s story had previously been lost to history, and Summerscale’s account of how she came upon his story and began researching it was, for me, the very best part of the book. This epilogue includes some speculation, although Summerscale never presents a definitive theory, and it includes her discovery of Robert’s ultimate fate. This portion of the book is truly remarkable. It’s the part I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. It’s an oddly lovely story in the end.
I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.