In West Ham in 1895, two young brothers suddenly seem to have a bit more money and freedom than usual. Robert and Nattie Coombes, twelve and thirteen respectively spent a few weeks going to the theatre; to cricket at Lords; frequenting the coffee shops around the docklands, and telling anyone who enquired that their mother was visiting Liverpool. Truth will out however, and the boys are ultimately discovered smoking and playing cards at home in a room that reeks of their decomposing mother.
Robert and Nattie are placed on trial for matricide, and Robert admits to killing her in her bed with a knife he had purchased for that purpose. In his version, Nattie is in on the murder, while Nattie claims he was completely innocent. The damage done to Robert’s psyche by his love of penny dreadfuls was a large part of his trial, much as video nasties/computer games/listening to Marilyn Manson have loomed large in modern cases. The shape of Robert’s skull is analysed, to assess if he fits Lombroso’s criminal type, as outlined by vogueish ‘science’. The focuses of the trial, the press coverage, the societal fallout tell us as much about Victorian society and its attitudes to childhood and criminality as they do about the ‘wicked boy’ whose motive for matricide is never uncovered.
This is as good a place as any to admit I am a big Kate Summerscale fan. Her books set the historical scene perfectly, and her latest is no exception. Small social interest details are used to give a clear picture of the setting but are never extraneous to the plot – for example, a long drought had impacted on sanitation, which meant that West Ham was unusually noxious at the time of the crime, which in turn helps to explain how the stench from the house went unnoticed. A story this salacious would be front page news now, so to get some idea of the level of fascination in the area at the time she informs us:
“A few weeks earlier a fourteen-year-old boy had climbed a tree in the Grove, near Stratford Boardway, and started dropping twigs and bits of bark on to the hats of people walking below. He refused to budge when the police ordered him down, and it was reported that nearly 3,000 people turned up to watch the constables remove him from the tree with the aid of a fire ladder.”
It may seem as though I have given the plot away – I haven’t. This story isn’t a whodunnit, and it’s not even fully a whydunnit. The trial, and indeed the boyhood, of Robert Coombes are just the beginning. We follow him through Broadmoor, into his eventual life in Australia, and through his life we can see how much we can know the overall character of a person through single acts (of however great a magnitude). Impeccably researched, well written, and engagingly presented The Wicked Boy is a great read for fans of true crime, historical fiction or Victorian sociology. Fans of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher et al will not be disappointed.
The Wicked Boy is published by Bloomsbury Books. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.