Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Wicked Boy by Kate Sumerscale

In 1895, the Plaistow district of Old London was set abuzz with news of a horrific crime.  Robert Coombes (13) and his brother Nattie (12) were seen about town, going to cricket matches and shows and treating their friends to sweets.  Their father was a ship steward and on a trip to New York.  But where was their mother?  When relatives and neighbors asked, the boys insisted she went to the shore to visit a sister.  They then got a man who had done chores for the family to stay with them, hoping to deflect suspicion.  But after ten days, their aunt forced her way in and found her sister's rotting corpse upstairs in her bed, dead of horrific knife wounds.

The boys were the obvious suspects.  They were arrested and taken to the Old Bailey to await trial.  Robert quickly confessed.  Nattie was more reluctant and was released as being considered the lessor of the two in guilt.  The press went wild, insisting that 'modern' youth were heartless and capable of any crime.  In particular, Robert's fondness for the penny dreadfuls, those tales of daring-do beloved of schoolboys, were blamed for inciting him.

At his trial, his lawyers were successful in claiming mental illness for him.  Nattie testified against his older brother.  Robert was then sent to Broadmoor, the infamous insane asylum.  But as the story more fully emerged, it become clear that Robert acted because of feeling unsafe with his mother and to protect Nattie.  The boys had run away at least twice and perhaps Robert felt that this was his only recourse.  He stayed in Broadmoor for years and was finally released a young man.

The story could have ended there, but Summerscale goes on to research and discuss the rest of Coombes' life.  He joined the military and fought in World War I on the Australian side.  Both of the brothers emigrated there for a new life.  He then spent the rest of his life in Australia, farming and continuing his love of music.

Summerscale was the literary editor for the Daily Telegraph.  Her former journalist career is evident in the careful research and her sourcing of information.  Robert's life is detailed, but so is the life in Victorian London, the history of penny dreadfuls, the medical regimen at Broadmoor and the military contributions of Australia in World War I.  Readers will be fascinated at the wealth of detail Summerscale provides and the restitution of Coombes life.  The author's books have been shortlisted for awards such as the Whitbread Biography Prize, the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction and the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.  She has won the British Book Awards Book Of The Year.  This book is recommended for readers of true crime and those interested in the Victorian era.

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