Monday, May 30, 2016

The Wicked Boy: A Book Review

True crime and well-researched historical detail
In the Victorian era, children were considered adults in miniature, the teenager unknown as we look on them today. But attitudes were changing, and when a thirteen-year-old boy murdered his mother in a run-down district of London, citizens debated the reason why. Not unlike today, when teens commit murder and it's the violent video game taking the blame. In 1895, it was the penny dreadful, the cheap literature filled with violence and gore that was seen as the terrible influence on malleable young minds.

Author Kate Summerscale examines one such crime in her newest work of history THE WICKED BOY. She uses the case of Robert Coombes, who freely confessed to killing his mother while his father was away at sea, and presents the sort of evidence that made up the prosecution and, more interesting, the defense.

Quoting freely from court records, Ms. Summerscale crafts an intriguing piece of narrative non-fiction, putting the reader into the middle of the case. Bit by bit, she peels away the layers of testimony that described the actual crime. The fact that Robert made no effort to hide his mother's body suggests a lack of real understanding of the gravity of the crime, at least to our modern eyes. The Victorians, however, were just then drawing that sort of conclusion, although Ms. Summerscale demonstrates the lack of consensus through newspaper reports of the day. She also reveals the prejudices of the time that painted a Coombes family friend as a harmless imbecile, the sort of person who today would be labelled as mentally challenged, rather than a cunning aid to murder. The reporting that described Robert and his younger brother, also implicated, is a window to another age, when overblown prose was typical and court artists took great liberties to portray the criminal as an animal.

The reader is able to draw conclusions without being beat over the head with the author's opinion, and like a jury member can read between the lines of evidence that danced around the possibility of extreme child abuse. We have come a long, long way from Queen Victoria's day, when a parent was allowed to do just about anything they pleased to their offspring.

Without giving away the ending, the conclusion of Robert Coombes' life proves to be uplifting and reinforces the theory that he was an abused child, his mother possibly mentally unstable. His experiences did indeed scar him, but he carried on with the sort of resignation one would expect from a boy raised in poverty and struggling to cope with the stress of a hardscrabble life.

This is a book worth reading for anyone interested in criminal justice in the Victorian period, and how the concept of a child as a wanton criminal was starting to give way under the influence of the newfangled theories of  psychoanalysis, with mental illness as the driving force behind crimes considered unthinkable. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read this five out of five stars book.

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