I’d previously read the author’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. I see that writing about The Suspicions of Mr Whicher I said, ‘There’s obviously a huge amount of research in this book but it’s never obtrusive.’ Unfortunately I didn’t feel the same about The Wicked Boy. The book starts very slowly indeed, with fact piled upon fact and me thinking, ‘Come on, get to the murder!’ When we do so, a strange and horrific tale unfolds.
In July 1895 Robert Coombes, aged thirteen, stabbed his mother to death in her bed. He and his younger brother Nattie then went to Lord’s to watch the cricket. Astonishingly, the lads continued to live in the house with their mother’s dead body, telling neighbours that she had gone away. Their father was at sea. Eventually, relatives and neighbours, alerted by the smell, discovered the horrid truth and Robert and Nattie were arrested, along with a man friend who had been staying with them. The story was immediately a public sensation. Robert admitted his crime, showed no remorse and behaved as though nothing had happened. Lawyers puzzled over whether Nattie had any part in the murder or if it had possibly been committed by the friend of the family. The other two were discharged and Robert alone stood trial. He was found insane and sent to Broadmoor, possibly due to reluctance to sentence to death one so young.
For me, the most interesting parts of the book deal with late Victorian attitudes to the crime. For some, the fault lay with educating the working classes to get above themselves. Many more blamed the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ which Robert loved to read and which, critics opined, inflamed the imaginations of young boys and led them to wild acts. More surprising is how very enlightened attitudes were at Broadmoor, with the emphasis on keeping the inmates safe and busy rather than punishing them for what it was assumed they couldn’t help. Robert was one of those later deemed to be no longer a danger to anybody and he was released.
Kate Summerscale has done a huge amount of research to find out what happened to Robert later. In spite of the distance from that time, she has managed to follow him to Australia and through the First World War. We now know where Robert is buried but are no nearer to understanding why he killed his mother. Robert Coombes, ‘The Wicked Boy’, remains an enigma.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley.