The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Wicked BoyIn 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.

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18 Responses to The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

  1. I eagerly awaited this book, considering that I thought “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” her earlier book, was one of the most engrossing true crime books I had ever read, not to mention the case’s connection to Dickens and Wilkie Collins. She presents the crime as extraordinary for its time; unfortunately, we jaded modern readers may not see it quite in the same terms that the neighbors did when the crime occurred.

    I read about half of “The Wicked Boy” and then put it down for awhile. I’m glad I came back to it, because you are certainly right; the fate of the murderer and his life after his release was extraordinary and, ultimately quite moving.

    • Teresa says:

      I have yet to read Mr Whicher, but I liked Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. With this book, I was surprised at how choked up I got in that last chapter. I was interested, but not emotionally invested, but it got to me in the end.

  2. Lisa says:

    This sounds fascinating. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, though it gave me the cold grues in places. I will be keeping an eye out for this one when it’s available in the US.

  3. Ocean Bream says:

    This sounds remarkably intriguing, like a book I desperately want to read but also really don’t for fear of the grim reality of life. But the way you described the ending has decided it for me, I must get my hands on it. Excellent review!

    • Teresa says:

      Summerscale stays away from sensationalizing, which keeps the story from feeling too grim. I think the worst parts are the descriptions of the body. It’s not unrelentingly dark, which is surprising, given the subject.

  4. rohanmaitzen says:

    This really does sound like a fascinating book. I haven’t read “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher” yet either – I am clearly behind on my Victorian true crime!

  5. It’s always fun to learn about Victorian trials — from a distance of 100+ years, it’s easy to see how a lot of these big trials were working through changing attitudes to social issues. (Like I know that current big trials do that too, Supreme Court cases and such, but we’re so close to them in time that I’m sure there’s a lot we’re missing.)

  6. Another book blogger friend of mine reviewed this book earlier this summer, and I thought it sounded terribly fascinating!

    • Teresa says:

      It might have been more fascinating if she’d really dug into some of the questions the case raises, but it’s pretty good as it is.

  7. heavenali says:

    I have read a couple of reviews of this now. It’s definitely on my wishlist.

  8. lailaarch says:

    I’ve not yet read anything by Kate Summerscale, but she’s on my TBR. I’m glad to know that this is not terribly sensationalistic.

  9. JaneGS says:

    Sounds like a fascinating book–grim subject matter, but it sounds like how it’s treated makes the difference.

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