My review of The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London -- for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert's severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for 'penny dreadfuls', the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder. The judge sentenced the thirteen-year-old to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Yet Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert--one that would have profoundly shocked anyone who thought they understood the Wicked Boy.

At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes's case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man's capacity to overcome the past.

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (July 12, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594205787
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205781
 The Illustrated Police News, July 27, 1895 - Credit: The British Library

‘The child is, naturally, by his organization, nearer to the animal, to the savage, to the criminal, than the adult,’ wrote Havelock Ellis in The Criminal (1890), ‘Children are naturally egoists; they will commit all enormities, sometimes, to enlarge their egoistic satisfaction.’ The celebrated psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne in 1883 urged parents to ‘remember that children are not little nineteenth-century men and women, but diamond editions of very remote ancestors, full of savage whims and impulses, and savage rudiments of virtue’. Henry Maudsley, the other pre-eminent psychiatrist of the age, wrote in 1895: ‘Whoever observes sincerely what a child’s actual mind is, without being biased by preconceived notions of its primal purity, innocence, and natural inclination to good, must see and own that its proclivities are not good but to evil, and that the impulses which move it are the selfish impulses of passions, and it would be more dangerous than any wild beast.’

Psychologist James Sully, an early researcher into child development, took a different view. Sully held that children were complex and vulnerable creatures, whose treatment by adults was decisive in forming their characters and fate. A child is ‘not yet a moral being’, said Sully in 1895, ‘and there is a certain impertinence in trying to force it under our categories of good and bad, pure and corrupt.’ ‘How carefully are they wont to hide from our sight their nameless terrors, physical and moral. Much of the deeper childish experience can only reach us, if at all, years after it is over, through the faulty medium of adult memory.’ (The Wicked Boy, pg. 126)

 What caused pre-teen Robert Coombes to stab his mother? Was he really influenced by the murder stories found in his favorite 'penny dreadfuls' of the day? Was he just simply born bad? The scary thing about, 'The Wicked Boy' is that it is a true story! Sadly, this event really happened. I have to say, I loved this book from start to finish!  It reminded me of one of the stories my grandma used to read me out of her Ellery Queen Magazine when I was a just a little girl. Hm, I didn't go and murder her a few years later!  So, all these psyhoanalytic theories and foundations and paradigms are all valid but what it comes down to is the very tragic truth that in the Coombes family in 1895 there were many other circumstances and factors that caused young 12 year old Robert to stab his mother that day and hide her body until the smell gave them away.  

I enjoyed Kate Summerscale's tone and writing style immediately. Her language seemed to be pulled straight out of Victorian London or England more specifically. Perhaps, I am just used to the descriptive narrative style that prevails in mysteries and thrillers.  It's not exactly her use of slang it is just her precise way of setting scene after scene, presenting fact from fiction, events from precursory reason and motivation. Her research is broad and specific. She does not overload the reader with heavy facts; instead, she humanizes the story of two young brothers and their family during the time of a tragedy that might have been prevented if only those around the Coombes boys picked up on some very strong happenings before and after the murder. 

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale will appeal to mystery lovers everywhere. If you love those good old fashioned Victorian settings of Charles Dickens, with a touch of Wilkie Collins thrown in for Gothic spine tingling chills then grab a copy and find out for yourself who Robert Coombes was and what happened to this very young boy to make him commit a family murder.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale is already published in the United Kingdom and can be purchased at bookstores everywhere.

Here in the United States, The Wicked Boy will be published July 12, 2016, Amazon

Thank you to Penguin Press, New York, for my advanced digital reading copy.


Hels said…
I loved this story, particularly because I was interested in what London must have looked and felt like, during Jack the Ripper's time. Was there fear everywhere and therefore the Coombes family members were merely a reflection of unstable life and dangerous streets in the 1890s?

I will create a link to your post when my post on the Coombes family dysfunction appears next week. Many thanks
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Hels,

I agree completely. I wanted to understand what London felt like as well. Funny you should mention Jack the Ripper's time because I kept getting that 'Ripper' feel as well. I'm sure fear was a motivating factor to the Coombes family murder. However, I have a hard time getting past Robert's young age. I think this murder ties into an instability within the Coombes family. Although, I'm sure the crime element and poverty level during 1890s London played a very strong part in this murder.

I can't thank you enough for creating a link and I look forward to reading your post on the Coombes family dysfunction next week. I will return the favor gladly.
Kevin Marsh said…
This sounds like a powerful book. Such tragedy and at a time when child psychology was in its infancy. What drove this lad to murder his mother so brutally?

Kimberly Eve said…
There's the question! The answer can be found in discovering more about Robert Coombes's life.