2016: 99. The Wicked Boy

“Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, Robert and Nathaniel Coombes dressed themselves, collected the family’s rent book from a room downstairs, and went out to the back yard.”

The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale

I love Summerscale’s Victorian true crime books.  Her first, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, the story of the Constance Kent case, was one of the best books I read the year I read it, and, in fact, just writing about it makes me want to go re-read it again.  Her second book, Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (which I read but can’t find a blog post about), was the story of a scandalous divorce case, and was also great (though no murder, so not quite as interesting).  This book is the story of a Victorian child murder - a young boy, Robert Coombes, who murdered his mother, and lived in the house with her corpse for at least a week before being caught.

So it’s scandalous because it’s murder, and because it was done by a child, and it’s matricide.  And what exactly was the involvement of his younger brother - was he complicit or innocent. And if guilty, did the family throw Robert under the bus to save Nathaniel? And why did he do it? And was he wicked or insane? Etc., Etc.  It’s a nice meaty topic, obviously, and Summerscale tells the tale well.  If you just want a good old fashioned true crime tale, you can’t do better than this one.  

BUT - her other books not only told a gripping real life tale, but also had another aspect to them - investing Victorian mores and morals along with just telling the story.  It’s what elevated both other books.  The Wicked Boy, on the other hand, seems to me to just tell what happened.  There is a little bit about treatment for insanity during the time period, but it didn’t have that great interweaving that the others did. I think if you haven’t read her other books (and you like historical crime), you’ll think this is amazing, but if you have, you’ll find it a bit lacking.  But believe me, I will be reading whatever she writes next in hardcover, just like I did here. (Bonus - the book is beautiful looking and lovely to hold).  Even slightly subpart Summerscale is pretty terrific.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017