An enigmatic character

Looking back at books I read in various reading groups, and here’s one which really engaged me, although I did have mixed feelings about the way it was written:

I have just finished reading ‘The Wicked Boy’ by Kate Summerscale; it’s the biography of a boy who was convicted of murdering his mother in 1895 and was then sent to Broadmoor Hospital He was thirteen at the time of the crime and as it wasn’t until 1908 that execution of children under the age of sixteen was banned, he could have had a death sentence. The biography follows Robert Coombe’s life from the time he stabbed his mother to his trial, his confinement and beyond to his life after he was released after thirteen years and eventually started a new life in Australia. The early life of Robert leading up to the crime is explored and a tentative theory is put forward about what led to this dreadful act – and the almost horrific events in the days which followed until the murder was discovered.

I read a previous true crime book by Summerscale, ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ in which she looked at another infamous crime, the dreadful murder of a little child. When I read that, although it was fascinating and i did enjoy it, I felt overwhelmed by the layer upon layer of information given, every little known detail was included in the narrative. It was admirable but heavy going at times. I did not find this at all with ‘The Wicked Boy’ although it does also show an enormous amount of research has been undertaken. The details were as full but it was written with a lighter touch, which made it more gripping – and in fact, as I got near the end, I couldn’t put it down, reading it in the car on the way to go shopping, on the way back, and as soon as I was in the house.

Robert Coombes is an enigmatic character and no-one can ever know the real motive for his crime – but there are reasons as testified by witnesses who knew him, knew his family, taught him, and later treated him as doctors and what would now be called psychologists and psychiatrists. The police investigation which is detailed in the book seems conscientious and as scientific as was possible in those days. The procedures in court also seem within their context to be as fair as could be (ok, so some of the lawyers were shady characters – but has anything much changed?) Once Robert is found guilty and sent to Broadmoor the way he and the other prisoners are treated is an absolute model for redemptive care.

In what I think of as the first part of the book – the crime, the trial and the sentence there is a tension because it’s not always clear whether we are told all of the details all at once, or whether something else will be revealed – to make it more of a mystery. Even when the years Robert spends there are chronicled there is – for me at least a sort of tension because I expected some unexpected revelation.

However, this is a story – a true story of redemption, and I won’t disclose more so it won’t spoil any engagement in reading the whole of Robert’s life story.

here is a link to an article about the book:

… and to Kate Summerscale’s website:

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