The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale: a book discussion

April 13, 2017 at 11:51 pm (Book clubs, books, True crime)

 I experienced the usual angst in preparing to lead a discussion of  The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale. Well, perhaps more than the usual angst.

I sang the praises of this book in a post I wrote last year. I’ve recently reread it –  the book I mean, not the post –  and the effect was the same as it was the first time: riveting and  deeply unsettling.

But because of the upcoming discussion, I was having a slightly different reading experience. (This is rather inevitable.) In addition to my admiration for the author’s terrific writing and prodigious research, I was feeling perplexed. Just how was I to organize this brilliant but somewhat oddly shaped narrative?

I struggled. I wrangled. Eventually I reached the point where, as my husband is fond of saying. you stick a fork in it and pronounce it done. I reached that point about an hour before show time.

So: Here, in part, is how it went:

I began with a passage from the Stratford Express, a local newspaper  widely read at the time that the crime took place (1895). The reporter, as you will see, does not mince words, referring to the murder as “…the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.” It goes on:

In the wildest dreams of fiction, nothing has ever  been depicted which equals in loathsomeness this story of sons playing at cards in a room which the dead body of their murdered mother filled with the stench of corruption.

Upon my second reading of The Wicked Boy, this passage put me in mind of a work which, although written more than four hundred years ago, remains probably the most harrowing depiction of the effect of murder upon the perpetrators that was ever recorded.

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
It is Act Two, Scene One of Macbeth, in which the eponymous protagonist anticipates the terrible crime he is about to commit.

And afterwards, oh, afterwards…He tells Lady Macbeth that the deed is done. He is nearly incoherent from the horror of it. For some moments, the known world is held in some kind of awful suspension, until a knocking at the gate is heard, a knocking that perversely prefigures a scene of comic relief featuring a porter too drunk to do his job.Thomas De Quincey describes  this unholy sequence of events brilliantly in his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth:”

Here … the retiring of the human heart and the entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible. Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things, human purposes, human desires…. In order that a new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers, and the murder, must be insulated—cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested—laid asleep—tranced—racked into a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done, when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the reestablishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.

This critique is followed by an apostrophe to the greatness of Shakespeare that begins, “O, mighty poet!” Indeed, but be assured, Mr. De Quincey, thou art no slouch thyself in the eloquence department!

(I am at present reading a fascinating biography of Thomas De Quincey: The Opium Eater, by Grevel Lindop.)

After giving a brief backgrounder on Kate Summerscale – necessarily brief, as  there’s not much material about her personal life out there, at least not that I could find – I focused on the three books she authored before The Wicked Boy:

I’ve not read The Queen of Whale Cay, but it sounds interesting. “Joe” Carstairs was apparently a rather unique character, in more than one way. I read and very much enjoyed Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Neither of these two works was in the true crime genre, but The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher certainly was. I led a discussion on that title back in 2009. What a rich concoction of a tale that is! It was Summerscale’s breakthrough book, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. (This has since been renamed The Baillie Gifford Prize. Presumably the British penchant for renaming literary awards is meant to keep us book lovers awake and alert.) In 2010, she was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (which appears to retain that name as of this writing.)

All Summerscale’s books save the first one take place – or, as in the case of The Wicked Boy, have their beginnings – in the Victorian era. In an interview in the Independent, quoted in the September/October 2016 issue of Bookmarks Magazine, she enlarges on her attraction to that particular time in history:

…it feels far enough away to be gripping, like a mystery or an adventure, but near enough to also recognise…..It’s strange on the surface, but you can get it. My sense of what we’re like as English people–the idea of the Englishness I inhabit–I have a sense of it being forged [then].

The subject matter of The Wicked Boy is grim enough. The murdered mother alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this post was done to  death by her own son. His name was Robert Coombes. At the time of the murder he was thirteen years old. What made the crime appear even more appalling – then as now – was the fact that once it had been done, Robert, his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, and a somewhat simple minded  adult companion named John Fox, whom Robert recruited for various purposes, not only played cards, but also attended cricket matches and amused themselves in various other ways as if they hadn’t a care in the world. (Their father, a merchant seaman, was away from home.)

What was their ultimate plan? There didn’t seem to be one, except to make the most of this hard won freedom for as long as they could. In ten days, the gig was up. When asked, Robert came clean and took the rap.

An even more pressing question involved Robert’s motive. Although he readily admitted to stabbing his mother, he didn’t supply a motive that seemed commensurate with the crime. Their mother thrashed Nattie for stealing food, presumably from their own larder. Adolescent boys develop powerful appetites, and Emily Coombes might not have been making allowances for this. At least one reviewer I encountered felt that this denial of needed nourishment might have been enough to trigger the killing. Neither of the boys was undernourished, though it’s worth noting that neither attained much height in adulthood. Nattie in particular was not much more than five feet tall.

One theory frequently offered was that Robert had fallen prey to the malign influence exerted by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’ that he read compulsively. As defined by Wikipedia, these were “cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom.” (America had its own similarly flourishing industry; they were called “dime novels” here.) Summerscale provides an interesting context for this phenomenon:

Between 1870 and 1885, the number of children at elementary schools trebled, and by 1892 four and a half million children were being educated in the board schools. The new wave of literate boys sought out penny fiction as a diversion from the rote-learning and drill of the school curriculum….Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

Sound familiar? A reviewer in The Guardian called penny dreadfuls “the Victorian equivalent of video games.”

I went off on a lengthy quest to find one of these, or at least a facsimile thereof. This American equivalent, published in 1903, is what I finally came up with, courtesy of eBay:

 Front and back covers


Inside front cover

Proclaiming the entries in this series to be “excellent books of generous length,” the editor goes on to offer this assurance: “One of the best features about these books is that they are all of the highest moral tone, containing nothing that could be objectionable to the most particular parents.”

Our group went on to discuss the types of emotional and mental disturbances that might have affected Robert. (Thank you, Frank, for your enlightening and professionally informed comments on this subject.) Ultimately Robert was adjudged guilty but insane. John Fox was not made to  stand trial. Nattie testified against his brother – he was “flipped,” as they in contemporary police dramas – and was granted immunity.

And Robert was sent off to a rather extraordinary institution called Broadmoor, originally opened in 1863. Under the enlightened regime in place there, he reached a more or less normal and potentially productive adulthood. He learned a marketable skill – tailoring, played in the band, something he loved to do and was good at, and participated in various sports.

In 1912, at age 30, he was released from Broadmoor and went to live at another interesting residential facility, The Salvation Army Farm Colony at Hadleigh, in Essex. Both Broadmoor and the Salvation Army facility are still in existence. The latter, in fact, has been repurposed  in a way that truly give one hope for the future.

Robert only stayed a year at the Hadleigh colony before emigrating to Australia. At that point in Kate Summerscale’s research, she nearly lost the plot. She was afraid that Robert Coombes might have changed his name. He hadn’t. She  picked up the thread once again when a Google search led her to a database of headstones in Australian cemeteries. Click here for the listing. And here is the inscribed memorial:

So: there was a record of Robert’s military service; in addition, an unknown name of one for whom he had apparently done a good turn. She could pick up her research from that point. And she did. Robert’s life in Australia – including Army service in foreign parts on behalf of his adopted country – occupies the second half of The Wicked Boy. It is a virtually unbroken chronicle of courage, sacrifice, and generosity, freely offered with no expectation of any kind of return.

And so, at the end of this sad and tragic narrative, one question looms over all. At first, I phrased the query in terms of atonement or redemption. Frank however felt that the real question was whether, over the course of his life, Robert Coombes had changed in a fundamental way. But that begs the question as to what exactly was the make-up of his nature on that fateful day in 1895?  And anyway,  a 13-year-old is a half formed thing. Anyone would change from that point in time up until he or she reached adulthood. Of course, most 13-year-olds, whatever the conflicts with their parents, do not up and kill one of them out of spite, frustration – or whatever it was. Was there a deadness in Robert’s heart where at least some degree of regard for his mother should have reposed? Frank thought there was.

One of the things that those attempting to adjudicate Robert’s case had to grapple with was the fact that at the time he committed the crime, he was no longer really a child but not yet an adult. The identification of adolescence as a distinct stage of development was only just then gaining acceptance in the literature of psychology and child rearing. (Wikipedia has an interesting post on the subject.)

In talking this over with my husband, he pointed out that a person who atones or genuinely repents a past act has by definition changed from what he or she was when the act was first committed.

At any rate, in this case of Robert Coombes, these questions must remain at least to some extent speculative. Summerscale not only did not unearth a journal or diary of any kind, she did not even find any letters. We can only judge him by his outward actions. And in his adult life, those belonged to a human being who was almost desperately striving toward goodness.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly. Kate Summerscale was asked whether she was concerned about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer. This was her response:

No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.

The Wicked Boy has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book of 2017 by the Mystery Writers of America. Winners will be announced later this month.

Robert Coombes in the late 1930s or early 1940s



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