Aug 30

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

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I received this book as part of my involvement with Netgalley. All thoughts are my own. This post contains affiliate links.
wicked boy

The Wicked Boy

The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

by Kate Summerscale

Penguin Press

Mystery & Thrillers



From the internationally bestselling author, a deeply researched and atmospheric murder mystery of late Victorian-era London

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 she 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.


My review:

The Wicked Boy is one of those books that drew me in with its cover.  It is very reminiscent of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, another non-fiction story of a historical crime.  However, The Wicked Boy is a much different story, occurring in a different culture and continent.

I was interested to learn about how matricide is not just a product of current American culture.  Robert Coombes’ crime happened over a hundred years ago, in a time and world far different than how we live now.  We are privy to much of the trial information; as such, I learned much about how British courts operated in the late 19th century, especially in regard to minors.

What I found most fascinating about the information we received about the suspect was how readers of the newspaper accounts just had to believe the reporters.  There were no such things as photos, so if the report stated that Coombes’ sneered or looked evil, than that was how he must be.  Now we have courtroom artists, and usually actual photographs and video, of our notorious trials.  Even the author noted that in one instance, an account noted the Coombes’ brothers in certain complexions, when in actuality, it was reversed.

I didn’t really start to enjoy the book until we arrived at the part detailing Robert’s life after he is sentenced to the infamous Broadmoor mental asylum.  I recently watched a documentary about Broadmoor and was interested to see how it operated at the turn of the 20th century and how Robert fared as a child resident.  We also learn about his service to Australia in World War II and his adoption of a neighbor child.  Robert was able to live in anonymity after his release from Broadmoor, a fate that would not be possible today.  Perhaps the lack of photographs was a blessing for those who were able to atone for their crimes.

While I didn’t love The Wicked Boy, I did like it and felt I finished the book having learned something.  Others who are interested in historical crimes and its parallels to modern crime would probably enjoy this book.  You can find The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale at booksellers like Amazon.com.

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  1. 6
    Amber Ludwig

    Oooh murder mystery!! SOLD!! Going on my next to read list! This sounds great! I am super interested in psych and learning about past events!!

  2. 5

    Looks like a very interesting book for a parent, child’s psychology — what have a greater impact, how it develops, should anyone/anything to blame. Also I love the books about victorian times

  3. 4
    Jerry Marquardt

    This looks like a very worthwhile book to read. I appreciate the information and review on The Wicked Boy.

  4. 3
    Sherry Compton

    Wow…it sounds like this book covers a lot of ground and really delves into child psychology, insanity, law, and murder. I would be interested in reading about it; sounds like she really researched.

  5. 2
    Denise C

    It’s a great cover, and I’m quite intrigued by the premise of this novel. I might just give this one a try.

  6. 1

    This does sound like an interesting book if you are interested in child psychology and how it has changed over the years. It would also be interesting to read how people took these crimes and how they felt as compared to the way we feel and deal with it.

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