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


2016,  307 P & notes

Spoiler alert

When watching yet another episode of the interminable Midsomer Murders, it is our practice to time how long it takes until the murder takes place. (In fact, I was rather disconcerted that in a recent episode there was no murder as such- although there was a surfeit of dead bodies being buried in unusual places.)  The first 43 pages of this book reminded me of our Midsomer Murder countdowns until the body is found.  In this case, you know there’s going to be a murder and you know that one of two boys have done it, because the title of the book tells you so.  Set in summer 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nattie head off to watch the cricket at Lords,  visit the theatre,  inveigle an older family friend to come and stay with them and tell lies in order to get ready cash. All the while, their mother’s bedroom door remains shut.  You know what’s behind that door.

It’s testimony to Kate Summerscale’s skill as a writer that she is able to hold you for so long across this extended introduction, and to keep you reading once the murder is actually disclosed.  Like her earlier book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher which I reviewed here, this is a really accomplished work of non-fiction writing that roams across courtroom reporting, social history, ‘penny dreadful’ juvenile fiction and the history of asylums. Her use of dialogue is drawn from the court transcripts, and if she sometimes follows rabbits down some rather strange and sometimes tangential rabbit holes, it’s because her fidelity to her sources forces her to draw on contextual material to flesh them out and do them justice.  The book does not show footnotes but it is strongly tethered in institutional sources – court documents, asylum records, army documentation- and heavily supported by secondary sources.

The lengthy epilogue marks quite a break as she, as author, comes out on stage.  She has followed the murderer to Australia, documented him at Gallipoli and followed him archivally back to Australia again, then abruptly she breaks into present-day history. All of a sudden she encounters people who knew him and who are deeply troubled by what she has found out. Now she is cognizant of present-day pain that her writing could cause, and the story takes her in a different direction that, as a story-teller, enables her to bring it to a close in a narratively and morally satisfying way.

This is skillful non-fiction writing that has similarities with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher in its choice of subject matter and approach. There is a risk, I suppose, that she’s becoming rather formulaic in her choice of Victorian subjects. But this book, despite its parallels with Whicher, has taken her to Broadmoor Asylum, where she has had to rethink her preconceptions of asylum life, and to the Australian concept of Gallipoli which was largely unknown to her. She has followed the facts and brought her researcher’s eye to material and a country that is new to her. She’s very good.

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