The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Boys will be boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the wicked boyFor ten days in the summer of July 1895, two boys spent their time roaming round coffee shops and attending cricket matches, and telling anyone who asked that their mother had gone to visit relatives in Liverpool. They slept downstairs in the back parlour of their house, with a family friend who had come at their request to look after them. Meantime, an unpleasant smell was beginning to seep from the house, becoming so bad eventually that the neighbours complained to the boys’ aunt. When she forced her way into the house, she discovered the badly decomposed body of the boys’ mother, and immediately young Robert Coombes admitted to having stabbed her to death.

This is a chilling but fascinating true crime story from the end of the Victorian era. Robert Coombes was thirteen at the time of the murder and his brother Nattie was twelve. The idea of the matricide itself horrified contemporary society enough, but it was the cool behaviour of the boys over the following ten days that made the crime seem even more shocking. Evidence showed that the murder was planned – Robert had bought the knife specially a few days earlier, and he later claimed that he and Nattie had arranged a signal for when the deed should be done.

The first part of the book concentrates on the crime and the trial procedures and Summerscale covers these with her usual excellent attention to detail. Because they felt that their case against Robert would be stronger if his brother gave evidence, the prosecution were keen to have the charges against Nattie dropped, since at that time defendants were not allowed to tell their story in court. In the early proceedings, Robert had no lawyer or other representation and was expected to cross-examine witnesses by himself. The boys’ father was a steward on board a transatlantic cattle vessel, and wasn’t even aware of the murder till after the first hearings had taken place.

The front page of the illustrated Police News 1895
The front page of the illustrated Police News 1895

Although this all sounds horrific to our modern ideas of justice, especially for children, there seems little doubt that Robert was indeed guilty, and some of the court officers did their best to make the process as easy for him as they could within the system. The boys were held in an adult jail during the trial process, but had individual cells – a luxury they might be unlikely to get today. The boys’ extended family did show up for the hearings, so Nattie at least had some adult support.

The defence quickly decided to try for an insanity ruling, which meant that they actually preferred for there not to be a rational motive, while the prosecution felt Robert’s guilt was so obvious they didn’t need one. The result of this is that no-one ever really asked why Robert did it, and so the motivation remains unclear. Summerscale suggests on the basis of some fairly circumstantial evidence that the mother may have been cruel to the boys in her husband’s absence – there is a suggestion that she too suffered from “excitability” and extreme mood swings, and may have beaten the boys badly, but this is largely speculation.

In this first section, Summerscale also widens her discussion out to look at the society and living conditions of the time. Robert’s family was working class, but not grindingly poor – his father had a decent income, and the boys got a good education. However, at that time, there was much debate as to whether educating the poor was a good thing, especially since the ability to read allowed boys access to the “penny dreadfuls” of the time, which many considered to have a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Robert had a collection of such pamphlets, and the press made much of this. The crime took place in Plaistow in Essex, an industrial area within the range of the heavily polluted atmosphere of London. There was also much debate at that time about the general poor health of the urban poor, while the acceptance of the theory of evolution brought with it a belief in the possibility of its opposite, degeneration. It all reminded me of the “bad boy” culture that Andrew Levy discussed so thoroughly in his book about Twain’s young hero, Huck Finn’s America.

Robert Coombes as as adult around the late 1930s
Robert Coombes as as adult around the late 1930s

The second half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robert after his conviction. Summerscale is asking, and answering, the question of whether someone who has done such a dreadful thing can go on to lead a normal, even worthwhile life. Robert spent several years in Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where again because of his youth he was in fact treated more kindly than we might expect. This whole section is fascinating in what it tells us about the treatment of those judged criminally insane. In fact, from time to time there were complaints that the treatment was too kind – that people were faking insanity to avoid the much harder regime in normal prisons.

Kate Summerscale
Kate Summerscale

This is not the end of Robert’s story, though. Following his eventual release from Broadmoor, Summerscale follows his trail through the rest of his life, uncovering some interesting and unexpected details about how he turned out. So often true crime stories from the Victorian era end with a conviction and capital punishment. This one, being somewhat later and also because it concerned a child, is intriguing because we are able to see the aftermath. At the point of conviction Robert would undoubtedly have been seen as some kind of monster, but Summerscale lets us see whether the rest of his life confirmed that or allowed him to find some kind of redemption. Immaculately researched, well written and presented, this is easily the equal of Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and personally, having worked with boys of that age with troubled and often criminal histories, I found this one even more interesting. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Group.

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54 thoughts on “The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

  1. Oh, I’m so glad this one lived up to its promise for you, FictionFan! I do find it fascinating the way young people who committed crimes were treated historically, and how it may impact what we do today. And it’s just as interesting to see how the press handled the matter. And the whole angle of social class got my attention, too. This one’s definitely on my list.

    • I was surprised actually at how comparatively gently the system worked for him – he did get special treatment because of his age, though obviously not as much as he would today. But I couldn’t help comparing the descriptions of his time in Broadmoor with what I know of the conditions for young offenders today and feeling that he had more chance for rehabilitation than many of them do. A really interesting one – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it! 🙂

  2. This is right up my street – I’m nipping over to Amazon now to order a copy. Isn’t it fascinating how the influence of popular culture on the younger generation has always been of concern to society? I am also keen to find out what happened to him afterwards. Thanks, FF – this looks super!

    • Yay! I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one if it’s your kind of thing – she does them so well and interestingly. Yes, the penny dreadful to the video game – the thing is I’m at least half convinced it’s true. Not that everyone who reads or watches them will turn out a killer, but that it somehow normalises violent behaviour. Ah well! If there were no criminals, just think of all the police and prison officers who’d have no jobs, eh? 😉

  3. I was going to say–at first–that’s a great title and probably describes me. I take it back! Take it back, you hear?!

    Anyways. Goodness. Let me see, Nattie? *shakes head*

    I am very curious as to why he did it, tho. I wonder. Kinda really freaky.

    • Hahahaha! I don’t know – I think that picture of young Nattie in the dock looks rather like you. I was thinking, though, that this would make a perfect Christmas gift for your Mom this year… *chuckles*

      Yeah, I wish they’d asked him more at the time. I guess his mother probably was cruel to them, but I must say even then you’d think they’d have run away or something. And staying in the house with the body for ten days…!!! *shudders*

      • I don’t look like that!! Hahaha. Ooo, good call! I bet she’d read it right up. I’ll tell her you recommended it, too…

        I know!! They were obviously crazy and mean and crazy. I would’ve run away. Far, far away. To the hills, I think.

        • (Oooh, Draw Me Close to You is rather nice! DO NOT TELL ME THE LYRICS!!!)

          Bet you did when you were an orclet! Hahaha! Nooooo!! You can’t tell her that! I’ll deny it…

          I once pretended I’d run away to annoy my mum, and went and hid under my bed. Two hours later she still hadn’t noticed… just as well I’d taken a book with me…

          • (It’s…okay. The lyrics are fab! I think. If I can recall. Better than the one I just did.)

            Now, here’s the thing: orcs are never orclets. See, they pop out as full grown orcs. (They come from mud, you know.)

            *laughs* You’re so pouty, it’s hilarious.

            • (*laughs* Well, I shall take your word for it! What one?!?!?!?!!!!! When?!?!?!!!!!! *aims porridge missile*)

              Yeah, but you’re the exception! They must have pulled you out early or how could there be a picture of you as a warrior-babe, huh?? *nods*

              *laughs* I wasn’t being pouty, I was being deliberately cruel and annoying! Though I may have become a little pouty when she failed to panic and run about screaming… mothers! Tchah! Anyway, you can talk, Mr Huffy…!!

            • (You know the one on… Wait! You wouldn’t know! Whoops. Well, see, if you were on FB more. I upload some vids there that aren’t as professional. Many sorry’s.)

              Umm…I deny that photo, the sudden!

              *laughs* *shakes head* Girls. I’m not huffy! Just puffy.

  4. Definitely NOT my cup of tea today! And that Police News page is positively gruesome! Perhaps it’s always been difficult raising teens, huh??!

    • No? Oh, I love these true crime stories, so long as they’re from way back long ago. I know! We sometimes think today’s newspapers cross the line, but that one’s incredible! And I think it came out long before the actual trial – what chance of an unbiased jury? Haha! Hopefully most teens just bang doors and stamp their feet a bit… 😉

    • It is! Ha, yes – I had to keep resisting the temptation to look ahead while I was reading. I must say (without spoilers) that that part was just as interesting as the actual crime…

  5. I have a copy of this book which I’m hoping to read soon. I couldn’t get interested in Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace but I loved Mr Whicher. This one sounds fascinating, so I’m pleased to see such a positive review from you.

    • I was the same – loved Mr Whicher but found Mrs Robinson very disappointing. This one definitely compares with Mr Whicher more than the other. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it – I hope you do anyway! 😀

    • She’s great at not just telling the story of the crime itself but widening it out so that she paints a picture of the society the people lived in. Both her first book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and this one are great. Mr Whicher looked at the early days of detection while this one concentrated more on the justice system. If you do read one, I hope you enjoy it! 🙂

  6. Now you pique my interest. I thought Mr Whicher was excellent, but had no interest in reading the second, but this sounds like it has more interest for me. Mind you, the TBR is completely out of control as it is……..

    • The second was disappointing so I don’t think you missed much. But this one is right back on form, so if you enjoyed Mr W then I’d think you’d be sure to enjoy this just as much. I’d get on fine with the TBR if somebody didn’t keep requesting books from NetGalley… wish I knew who it was!

    • Yes, I found the stuff about his later life really interesting, but also the stuff about the justice system, which wasn’t nearly as brutal as I’d have expected for the time…

  7. I had no idea this was a true crime book, so I was horrified when I got to the part about the dead mother and then the fact that it was a true story. And, then just as I was wondering about his later life, you mentioned that the whole second half of the book is focused on it. Now I have to read it to find out how he turned out! I’ll add her other book to my list, too!

    • Haha! I know! We sometimes think crime fiction is overly brutal but no way can it match up with this kind of horror. In fact, if this had been a fiction, I’d probably have abandoned it and been ranting about unpleasantness and lack of credibility… 😉

      Both of these ones are great reads that tell a lot about the society as well as about the crime. I wasn’t so keen on her second book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, and I don’t think I was the only person who was a bit disappointed in it, so don’t start with that one… 🙂

  8. I think I’ve heard of this. Sounds horribly fascinating. My sister-in-law might like this one. She’s a therapist, who enjoys shows like Forensics File where they discuss criminal mindsets and the lengths police go through to capture criminals.

    • It is pretty horrifying, especially the first few chapters about the actual crime. But she doesn’t glamourise it or be unnecessarily tasteless. She just sticks to the facts. Yes, I think anyone who’s interested in true crime would enjoy this one, so well worth recommending it to her… 🙂

  9. We have a lot of these true crime shows on TV in the U.S., and I’ve seen many that involve children who kill. It’s fascinating. Sometimes, the murders seem so selfish, like the young teen who shot both parents in the back of the head because they took away his videogames as punishment. I remember in particular one boy, who was probably 12, who murdered the neighbor girl, who was about 7. She was playing on his front lawn, but he kept telling her to leave because his father would be home soon, and his father was this physically abusive drunk who would beat his son if anyone was playing at the house. Terrified of his father, the boy murdered the girl and hid her under his bed. That case bothered me so much; I can’t believe the father — or mother! — weren’t responsible. I was the kind of kid who did whatever adults told me to do, so the idea of charging children is scary to me, especially when we had no autonomy and would suffer the wrath of parents if we didn’t obey them.

    • Goodness, that one about the son murdering the girl sounds just awful, doesn’t it? How scared must he have been of his dad to do that? There’s always a deabte about what age kids really understand that killing someone means they actually die and I do think it probably varies from child to child. One of the boys I worked with was about thirteen when we found a sick rabbit in the grounds of the school. The science teacher told me it was dying, so we arranged for her to take it to the vet to be put down. This boy, obviously not knowing what “put down” meant, asked if he could have it as a pet afterwards. So I carefully explained that it meant the vet would kill it painlessly. To which he stunned me by replying, yes, but afterwards, please could he have it as a pet! Some of the younger boys totally understood but he clearly didn’t. Although I explained the concept of death to him, I still don’t think he really got it, and he really wasn’t an unintelligent child – average I’d say. He just couldn’t get his head round the idea of being dead for ever…

    • I think it might be partly that I have a particular interest in “wicked boys” because of having worked with boys of that age, but also I loved that this one told us what happened to Robert afterwards. So often these true crime stories stop at the conviction. I’m sure that if you enjoyed Mr Whicher, you’ll really enjoy this one too! 😀

    • I must say she is one of the best of the true crime writers. She gets a good balance between detail and the storytelling side of it and, like me, she’s more interested in the people than the forensic side of the crimes… and it’ll be good to give your biceps a proper workout…

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