Thank you to Net Galley for a review copy of this title.
Bloomsbury Publishing. 400 pages. £16.99. ISBN number: 9781408851142
Review by Justine McGrath.
The American novelist Jack London characterized East Londoners as “a people of the machine and the Abyss.” The dismal working class area of Plaistow in London fits this description perfectly, and in 1895 becomes notorious as the scene of an horrific murder. The victim is Emily Coombes; the murderer – her 14-year old son Robert.
A non-fiction account, written in a narrative style based on fact and devoid of emotion, ‘The Wicked Boy’ follows the story of the life of Robert Coombes, who seemingly without remorse or concern, murders his mother by stabbing her through the heart.
He and his brother Nattie (short for Nathanial) who is only twelve, then go on a jolly for the next ten days. They see the cricket at Lords and go to the theatre, while the body of their mother rots in an upstairs bedroom. They also enlist a friend of their father’s called John Fox to stay with them. He is rather slow and seems oblivious to the foul smell emanating from the upstairs bedroom.
The truth must out and after ten days, the boys’ aunt forces her way into the house, following reports of a strange smell. The author does not shy away from the macabre and the scenes describing the remains of Emily Coombes’ body are grim in the extreme. Robert Coombes confesses immediately, and exonerates his brother from any wrong doing. Their father is away at sea and oblivious to both the murder of his wife and the subsequent arrest of his two sons.
The politics, society and atmosphere of Victorian London are described in intricate detail, along with a fascinating insight into how child murderers were treated in the late 1800s in England. But the question that preoccupies the author is why did Robert Coombes kill his mother?
Summerscale has written of this murder trial in the same style in which she wrote ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,’ for which she won the Samuel Johnson prize and garnered much attention. In that real life narrative, the author also follows the life of the culprit, Constance, after the trial, to see what becomes of her.
During the trial in ‘The Wicked Boy,’ doctors and psychologists claim that Robert’s brain is too large for his skull and that he has always suffered from headaches. This is verified by his father. He is diagnosed with a condition known as “cerebral irritation.” Another theory to explain his behaviour, given by the victim himself, is that his mother had a vile temper, and Robert claims he killed her because she had “thrashed” Nattie and he was afraid she was going to continue to beat both of them.
Another theory put forward is that the blame for the murder lies with the ‘Penny Dreadful’ boys’ magazines that Robert liked to read. The author digresses too much recounting stories from the Penny Dreadfuls, which detracts from the more interesting main narrative. Too much is made of this and as one of the local newspapers at the time, the Gazette stated:
“The books a man or woman reads are less the making of a character than the expression of it.”
Robert may have wished to run away to India due to reading the magazines, but it didn’t necessarily mean he killed his mother in order to do so. The author is careful not to elicit our sympathy as Robert is portrayed as a cruel, heartless child who also stole repeatedly without the slightest remorse.
“Robert seemed quite the Cockney dandy, a wordly Dodger to Nattie’s wide-eyed Oliver Twist.”
We are initially prompted to feel increasing concern for Nattie, who, as the younger brother appears vulnerable and under Robert’s control. He is released without charge, if he will testify against his brother which he does. We are never told how Robert feels about this.
Robert seems entirely unfazed throughout the trial and yet the jury takes pity on him and declares him insane at the time of the murder. The alternative was death by hanging. Whether Robert committed the murder as a result of what the doctors termed ‘cerebral irritation’ or due to his anxiety about his mother’s beatings, or as a result of both, we are left to decide for ourselves.
What is more important to Summerscale, and where this book becomes increasingly intriguing, is what happened to Robert after his conviction. He is transported to Broadmoor lunatic asylum and as well as hearing how Robert copes, the author pulls us into incredible story after story of the other prisoners and their lives. Music plays a large part in his life and he becomes accomplished in both the cornet and the violin.
However, that is only the first quarter of the book. There is so much more. Largely leaving Nattie out of it, Summerscale follows the rest of Robert Coombes’ life through Broadmoor (where he does well after an initial breakdown) and then through not one, but both World wars and a new life in Australia.
Summerscale writes this incredible tale of one man’s survival against all the odds with intriguing stories of other crimes, criminals and characters from the era. The book is replete with interesting anecdotes and facts of life in Victorian England. For example, the prosecuting barrister in Robert’s case, a man by the name of Charles Gill, also prosecuted Oscar Wilde.
As Robert’s life unfolds we begin to root for his ongoing survival, such is his courage and seeming change of persona, which leads back to the original question. What leads a 14-year old boy to murder his mother? That is left for the reader to decide through this tale of intrigue, degradation and redemption.