The Wicked Boy: The Mystery Of A Victorian Child Murderer

Author: Kate Summerscale
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing, nonfiction

One summer morning in the year 1895, two boys in East London – one aged 13, the other, 12 – pawned some belongings to raise enough money to watch a cricket match.

As the days passed, a terrible stench began emanating from a room in their home.

Soon after, a visiting relative encounters the boys’ mother lying on her bed, dead from multiple stab wounds.

The Wicked Boy’s genre alone makes it interesting: A combination of history and true crime writing, it is a gripping account of matricide, media frenzy and moral panic in Victorian England.

The book’s topic on its own would probably guarantee sales but its qualities are not confined to its gruesome subject matter alone: the book is exceptionally well-written.

There are very few books out there that I think deserve a rating of a full 10 out of 10, but The Wicked Boy: The Mystery Of A Victorian Child Murderer is one of those books.

Victorian England fascinates many people even after all this time. For many readers outside Britain, Victorian classics tend to be their first introduction to English literature.

And for the British themselves, Victorian England stands for a (not entirely guiltless) nostalgia for a time when their country was the stable, and secure, centre of a global empire.

Yet the age of the gentleman was far from gentle: exploitation, urban poverty, and petty crime marked much of life then, especially among the poor.

While Victorian England gave us the fantasy of Sherlock Holmes, the legal and criminal underworld of its time were infamous for murders such as those committed by Jack the Ripper and sensational trials like that of Oscar Wilde (whose trial gets a mention in the pages of The Wicked Boy).

str2_catalinaboyR_ma_coverRight up there with such infamy was the trial of the Coombe brothers; in 1895 it was the subject of sensational news reports and heated debates about deteriorating social values and morals among the young.

At the centre of the media frenzy surrounding the crime is Robert Coombe, the matricidal 13-year-old and “wicked boy” of the situation.

His lack of remorse, guilt or shame compounded with his callous behaviour – such as his laughing while leaving the courts – being fascinated by murderers both real and fictional, and his love for penny dreadfuls (Victorian pulp fiction) shocked observers.

By our modern understanding of human psychology, Robert fit the profile of a psychopath.

As author Kate Summerscale narrates the events surrounding the discovery of the murder and the subsequent trial, we capture a glimpse of Victorian social concerns.

There is moral panic about penny dreadfuls and the extent of sex and violence in these stories.

Attempts to understand the psychology of a remorseless young killer like Robert emerge as the experts of the day speculate on his brain size and his temperament.

In spite of this morbid subject matter, Summerscale never stoops to sensationalising or indirectly glorifying the murderer she writes about. Her writing is detached and cool, yet empathic.

The ending of The Wicked Boy is certainly very thought-provoking.

Without revealing too much detail about the outcome of the trial, Summerscale’s account of a crime that shocked Victorian England will make us think about the nature of our modern justice system and the individuals affected by it.

In the case of a heinous crime committed by a child, what should be the right and just response?

The Wicked Boy is meticulously researched, empathetically written, thrilling and thought-provoking.

It is a definite must-read.