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The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer Hardcover – July 12, 2016
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“A remarkable job of historical reconstruction…. In the time-honored tradition of Victorian crime stories, The Wicked Boy is a compelling mixture of the gruesome and the perfectly ordinary, a brew uniquely British…. a feat of genuine detective work.” —Dallas Morning News
“A chilling look at an infamous child murderer, The Wicked Boy will have you losing sleep.”-- Bustle
“In The Wicked Boy you’ll think you’re reading Dickens.”— NBC-2
“Summerscale’s command of the detail of Victorian life is impressive; her grasp of the nuances and characters of the individual personalities complete. “The Wicked Boy” is an extraordinary tale of black tragedy and hard-won redemption. Not to be missed by devotees of the Victorian Era.”— Daily Herald
“Ms. Summerscale has found a nifty literary specialty: resurrecting and reanimating, in detail as much forensic as it is novelistic, notorious true-life tales of the Victorian era… Enjoyable as an atmospheric tale of crime and punishment from a distant era written in lucid, limber prose, “The Wicked Boy” also implicitly raises questions that remain with us today… Ms. Summerscale’s easy mastery of what turns out to be a complicated, at times surprising narrative drives the book forward… Ms. Summerscale draws no firm psychological conclusions, but instead leaves the mystery of the boy and the man to our imaginations, where it pricks at us throughout the book.” --Charles Isherwood, New York Times
“Summerscale’s ambitious literary goal… is to position her close study of a specific crime within the broader context of the social and political climate in which it was committed. When the novelist P.D. James turned to true crime… [she] share[d] that expansive vision… Irresistible.”--Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
“Summerscale has taken her research to many levels of learning for the reader. It’s more than The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer—it’s a tale about change. It belongs on every reader’s bookshelf.”— New York Journal of Books
“Narrative nonfiction that reads like a novel.”— Omnivoracious Best History Books of July
“The Wicked Boy is an absorbing piece of true-crime investigation, and a surprising and satisfying tale of redemption….a treat for true-crime fans.” —Shelf Awareness
“Summerscale specializes in revisiting scandals that reveal Victorians in the throes of their own morbid spells. She expertly probes the deep anxieties of a modernizing era. Even better, she brings rare biographical tenacity and sympathy to bear.” —The Atlantic
“As engrossing as a novel.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Summerscale bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit….[Her] dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“This well-written story is not so much a true-crime tale or murder mystery as an excellent sociological study of turn-of-the-20th-century England.” —Kirkus Reviews
Praise for Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher:
"A beautiful piece, written with great lucidity and respect for the reader, and with immaculate restraint. A classic, to my mind, of the finest documentary writing." - John Le Carre
"A pacy analysis of a true British murder case from 1860, the unravelling of which involved one of the earliest Scotland Yard detectives and inspired sensation novelists such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins ... Absolutely riveting." - Sarah Waters
"[A] fastidious reconstruction and expansive analysis of the Road Hill murder case...Summerscale smartly uses an energetic narrative voice and a suspenseful pace, among other novelistic devices, to make her factual material read with the urgency of a work of fiction." - Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
"Remarkable for the power of the storytelling... [this] is likely to be the last word on this tragic and mysterious crime." - PD James
"I can’t think of another book which takes you so fast into the smells, tastes and atmosphere of that time." - Doris Lessing
Praise for Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace:
"This is the golden age of narrative nonfiction, and Summerscale does it better than just about anyone." - Laura Miller on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday"
"Summerscale unspools the Robinsons' tale with flair in Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, but it's her social history of marriage that's really riveting. Grade: A" - Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly
"[Kate Summerscale] prods, scrutinizes and examines, employing a real-life historical episode to shed light on Victorian morality and sensibilities." - Andrea Wulf, New York Times Book Review
About the Author
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The investigation and trial that followed was covered in great detail by the London newspapers. Almost immediately 13 year old Robert Coombes was singled out as the actual murderer. During his trial allegations of family violence and abuse of the boys alternated with lurid speculation on the role Robert's natural depravity (his brain was said to be too large for his skull by one doctor) and on the effect reading sensational penny dreadfuls had on the nation's youth. So-called experts claimed that an entire generation of working class youth had been ruined by being educated above their station. In the end Robert was found guilty of murder and then sent to the insane asylum at Broadmoor. He was released after 17 years and eventually emigrated to Australia, where he joined the armed forces and served at Gallipoli and in France, then returned to Australia where he lived quietly gardening and keeping to himself until, towards the end of his life, he was able to assist a young boy in an intolerable situation.
Kate Summerscale excells in her ability to research and relate the stories of long forgotten Victorian tragedies. The Wicked Boy is as compelling a read as her earlier The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Readers learn a great deal about late Victorian society and about life in London's East End, where even middle class families like the Coombes were relegated to meager existences in long rows of identical small houses, working in noisy factories and dealing with squalor on all sides.
I could hardly put The Wicked Boy down. While it is impossible to say for certain what actually caused young Robert to murder his mother in 1895, Summerscale's research, which is evident in her lengthy and fascinating Notes, does allow us to speculate. I was intrigued to learn that Broadmoor's administrators actually tried to help their inmates rather than just keeping them locked away from society, and the sections on Robert's life in Australia and his service in World War I were equally interesting. Most of all, I enjoyed reading about Robert's role in saving a young boy from a brutal home life. The Epilogue, in which Summerscale describes her efforts to track that boy (now an elderly man) and his family down, will undoubtedly leave readers wiping away a tear or two.
It became obvious through the recounting of conditions leading up to the crimes that Robert and Nattie were abused. Robert seems to have acted in a way to not only defend himself but protecting his younger sibling. There are things we will never know because of the way the boys were questioned and how criminal cases were tried.
The interesting part of the case was Robert's life after release from Broadmore. He not only never reoffended but went on to serve honorably in WWI. He led a quiet life.
He eventually became a mentor and guardian to another young boy in an abusive situation. He may have not only saved the boy's life but possibly defused a situation that mirrored his own.
It is a story of hope and redemption. Worth a look.
I think the most important details relate to the prison system for the mentally ill in that era, showing what effect a caring, nurturing environment can have on an apparently remorseless killer. We spend so much money to treat people poorly in prisons, which are now our de facto mental hospitals, destroying prisoners' lives and the lives of the people who guard and mistreat them. That "justice" means so little now compared to then just shows all the mistakes we've made giving power to the wrong people in our justice system, which in the end is almost devoid of anything resembling justice at all.
Top international reviews
Having said all that, much of the book seems to wander from the point. We get detailed accounts of the background and history of other - at first seemingly peripheral - characters, where perhaps less would have been adequate. You have to take Ms Summerscale, the author, as she comes - prejudgement will get you nowhere. Novels do not generally have "Notes" or an Index: this book has both. In some respects, the work fulfils the criteria for a novel (there is, for example, a great deal of direct speech); in some respects it does not. Whichever it is, or be it a hybrid, it is an undoubtedly worthy piece of writing. Robert Coombes turns out to be an utterly fascinating character. I urge those tempted - those who are curious - to read it.
Ms Summerscale's passages about the conditions experienced by Australian soldiers during the First World War vividly bring many of its horrors to life in a most accomplished way - I learned quite a lot.
This a very well-researched and extremely well-written book about an intriguing and complex man - every bit as gripping from start to finish as any novel I've ever read and I recommend it most highly.
Robert Coombes was an intelligent 13-year-old, who was found guilty but insane and sent to Broadmoor, which seems to have been a remarkably enlightened and caring institution. Released in 1912 he emigrated to Australia before joining up at the start of WW1. As a talented musician he became a bandsman and, like all bandsmen, a stretcher-bearer. He saved many lives and survived the war. Back in Australia he lived a respectable, bachelor life as a smallholder and devotedly cared for a boy who'd been abused by his stepfather.
What was the family trauma that drove him to murder his mother? How did Broadmoor help him turn his life around? This brilliant book just records what happened and refuses to provide the definitive answer, which keeps you thinking.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I thought about "the boy" a lot once I had finished it. It was an horrific event but the aftermath was touching. His treatment after sentencing was humane- I doubt if anything comparable exists today. The Press coverage in that time was as reliably unreliable, sensational and inaccurate as today, but there appeared to be no hounding him on release. Something that cannot be said re today's child murderers.e.g. Venables and Mary Bell. It was a thought provoking portrait. I would recommend it.
It did take me some time to get into the book. Unlike Mr Whicher, which had such a fascinating and weird crime to hook you in. This crime was for me just depressing. However I kept reading and I was really glad I did. This is a fascinating bit of social history, one that I think is important for how we view crime and criminals. By the end I was completely wowed.