Kate Summerscale's previous books include 'Mrs Robinson's Disgrace' (my first introduction to her as an author), and the hugely popular 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' which was turned into a TV series by ITV.
Her new title, released early this year, is called 'The Wicked Boy: the mystery of a Victorian child murderer'. Admittedly not the most upbeat of subjects, and I wasn't expecting it to be quite such a page turner. The book focuses on the life of Robert Coombes who at the age of 13, murders his mother in her bed and then he and his younger brother spend the next ten days attending the cricket, theatre and pawning off their possessions before the crime is eventually discovered.
The book follows their arrest and then the trial which I found a really interesting read. The Victorian justice system certainly leaves a lot to be desired. I found it almost unbelievable the way decisions were made and witness statements given. Robert's younger brother Nathaniel (called Nattie throughout the book) is quickly exonerated of any wrong doing and is instead used to testify against his brother. The witnesses gave testimonials that wouldn't be allowed in today's courts as they were mostly based on personal like or dislike rather than the facts.
The second thing about the trial that I found unbelievable was how quick the courts were to judge people 'insane'. It seemed that if anyone committed a murder they were thought insane as no normal person would just go about killing people. In a way, this is somewhat true, but in Victorian times this was backed up by a lot of new science from European psychologists to do with the size of your head and other weird 'indicators' of a person prone to insanity. It seemed a lot of criminals got away with quite a lot by pleading the 'insanity' card.
The media coverage of the trial seemed to be quite intense and they were quick to write sensationalist headlines and paint Robert as an evil little boy, and Nattie as the innocent younger brother led astray by Robert. The were also quick to lay blame on Robert's reading of 'Penny Dreadfuls'- which were a series of cheap adventure stories (usually a bit gory) aimed at young boys.
Robert is found guilty but deemed insane by the jury and so is sent to Broadmoor Asylum. I was quite surprised as to how easy Robert had it here. Due to his young age, he was kept in Block 2 which by all accounts was where the richer inmates were kept and seemed to get a lot of luxuries. In Block 2 they could read books, play chess, tend to a garden and play cricket. One journalist on visitng the block described it more as a 'gentleman's lounge' rather than an asylum. It all seemed like a bit of a holiday in a country retreat. This was surprising as I had previously read a book called 'The Ballroom' by Anna Hope which was set in an Asylum in Yorkshire which painted a very bleak contrast.
At his trial, it was said that Robert would probably spend the rest of his life at Broadmoor, but nearly 20 years later he was deemed 'sane' and released. A short time later he emigrated to Australia and after that served in the Australian army during World War I where he received many medals for his bravery and service.
For me, this book was un-put-downable. I was absolutely riveted from the beginning and managed to finish it in 3 days which is new for me as I usually lose interest with non-fiction after a few chapters. Kate Summerscale is a brilliant author and I can't gush about her well enough that would do her writing and flair for storytelling the justice it deserves. It's an absolutely fantastic read! Kate Summerscale is appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival and I'm definitely getting tickets to hear more about her research.
Title: The Wicked Boy: the mystery of a Victorian child murderer
Author: Kate Summerscale