the Wicked Boy

From the internationally bestselling author, a deeply researched and atmospheric murder mystery of late Victorian-era London

In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert’s severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for ‘penny dreadfuls’, the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder. The judge sentenced the thirteen-year-old to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Yet Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert–one that would have profoundly shocked anyone who thought they understood the Wicked Boy.

At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child MurdererThe Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And just like today, music, video games and exposure to a culture caught in a downward spiral are to blame for everything! Damn those penny bloods!

Yep. The first half of this story is where none of the redemption is, but where most of the stuff worth reading is found. This author is great at taking her research and turning it into an easily readable and interesting story. She is great with details and makes excellent connections that she points out to the reader without sounding pretentious.

Robert was certainly a mystery all on his own. Trying to assess his motive, his reactions and the causes behind his behaviour after the death of his mother are enough to make this book worthy of reading and sharing with others.

I was immediately fascinated by this story and by the characters themselves. Kate Summerscale chose an interesting group of subjects for this book, and knowing that they were more than just simple figments of an author’s imagination made it that much more compelling. Still, I struggled through the latter half of this book. I felt the author ran out of worthy information to convey and much of the last part of this was just padding to create a longer book. Needless information on the people Robert met and was incarcerated with, or in the service with bored me. Very few of the character sketches of these people turned out to be important.

When I finished, I walked away glad to have had the opportunity to read this book. If you enjoy real life mysteries and the Victorian era, this should satisfy.

This review is based on a complementary copy from the publisher, provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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