The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

A new book from Kate Summerscale is reason for excitement. I don’t willingly read a lot of non-fiction (always preferred working on it as an editor to reading it for pleasure) and yet when I see that this particular author has published a new title my insides do a little dance in anticipation and said title doesn’t linger on my kindle for long.

The reason for this is that the author is dynamite at combining thorough research with wonderful storytelling. When I read her books I am not only entertained but educated in that best of ways – the way where you’re having such a good time that you don’t even notice. And I don’t just mean I learn facts and history – though I do. I mean that I find myself pondering all kinds of things about people, society and even myself, so that by the end of a book I have cogitated and discovered more about, well, life.

The Wicked Boy was no different. Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, it was intriguing, meticulously researched, written with great empathy and in a narrative style that takes the reader through the chapters as if they were reading – and trying to figure out – a mystery, rather than the details of a 120-year-old crime and the life of the sentenced thereafter.

In 1895 Robert Coombes and his brother Nattie are tried for the murder of their mother. They are aged 13 and 12. The boys seem neither upset nor ashamed of the crime, and though they try to cover it up (badly) they are keen to admit it when accused. The account of their behaviour, the crime and the public’s reaction to it at the time is fascinating, created by Summerscale with clever layering of source material. One of things I love about this author’s style is that you never feel as if she is telling you what to think, nor does she try to fill gaps where gaps cannot be filled. It means that you the reader are sifting through the information – that comes from a range of perspectives, it is never one-sided – and forming your own view of the situations being described. So while you are reading, you are also considering everything for yourself: Do I believe these boys committed matricide? Why do I think they did? Surely there must be a good reason or are they just insane? And while you are reading and pondering you are steered through the story with grace and a subtle confidence that only comes from a truly accomplished writer.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the trial concludes with Robert deemed insane and to have influenced his brother to help murder their mother, and is sent to an asylum where he lives a full if very quiet existence as an inmate. It is the best kind of that type of institution, a place where people are treated with care and respect, where they are given occupation and peace, and some, like Robert are moulded to return to the everyday world. When Robert is released he ends up serving with honour as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, and emigrates to Australia where he lives an unremarkable and quiet life in a small rural community. He is a tailor, a talented musician, a small-hold farmer. He is well-liked, intelligent and respected. He keeps in touch with his brother who, like him, also went to war, works hard and lives an unremarkable life.

An unremarkable almost hermit-like life, perhaps, but I was so interested in Robert Coombes and his decisions, and he is described with such empathy, that I was gripped to each page, wanting to find out another small detail, wanting to add to my picture of this child-murderer grown up who I was beginning to like and wanted to see happy in some way. Of course, the somewhat frustrating thing with non-fiction is that we rarely have neat, rounded, happy endings; we only have what the author can discover, what the documents can tell us. At the very least, in this case, what the author discovers about Robert Coombes is satisfying for the reader.

In the end, when reading The Wicked Boy we are reading a book of two stories: an account of a sensational murder trial in Victorian England, and the tale of one man’s search for redemption. Both stories are equally mesmerising, though the latter certainly affected me more; it is still sitting beneath my ribs, forcing the occasional deep and contemplative breath. I didn’t expect this when I first started the book. I thought I would be witnessing the retelling of a captivating trial and a shocking crime. I wanted to gawk and be thrilled. And I did, and I was. But I was also taken on the journey of a quiet man’s life, on his personal travels towards atonement. And I was fascinated, interested and, ultimately, touched. This is a fantastic book from Kate Summerscale that I would heartily recommend. It is skilfully written, a pleasure to read, and a work of great scholarship and compassion. I will not forget it in a hurry.

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Book 9: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

resized_9780747597285_224_297_fitsquareNon-fiction makes its first appearance in my pile o’ books  this year with a fascinating and accomplished book from Kate Summerscale.  (Though I should explain that this work encompasses many of my fiction loves and does indeed read somewhat like the murder mystery genre which was inspired by the events The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details… just in case you suddenly thought we were going to be travelling down some modern history/current affairs/biography path for the rest of the year. We’ll be back to fiction next time)

The murder of a young boy becomes an almost obsessive interest in 1860’s England with the details of the crime and the search for his killer, playing itself out throughout the land in any 2-bit rag that could print a story. For the first time, the reporting on this crime allows the public into the privacy of the middle class family home (previously sacred) and sets off a chain of investigations, hearings, theories and more letters to the editor than you could imagine. The most well-known police detective in London is sent to solve the murder – his name is Jack Whicher – and the case leads both to his prolonged fame and fall from the graces of a fickle society.  

What you learn in Summerscale’s fantastic book is that Whicher and the Road Hill House murder were the inspiration for detective fiction to come. Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ Bleak House, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and her manor house murders, gosh, I’ll even suggest that Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library, and just about any modern detective story some gruff, unmarried loner can poke a bottle of 12 year single malt at, all have some kind of beginning in Jack Whicher and Victorian society’s fascination with the art of detection. Summerscale blends details and comparisons such as this with the real-life story of Saville Kent’s murder and the quest for his killer.

This is the kind of non-fiction I like: an interesting topic, told from a fresh angle, written in a narrative style and peppered with tidbits, facts and historical suppositions, such as you have never before encountered. The excitement the case roused and the endless appetite the public had for stories of ‘detection’ is fascinating, and you find yourself drawn in to the investigation and lives of the main players in a similar way. Victorian society’s intrigue is contagious and Summerscale entices you to try to work out the culprit for yourself and work out why they would do such a thing (just like you would if you were indulging in some Miss Marple).

Kate Summerscale is coming to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’m going to see her speak (she is a former literary editor and has judged the Booker prize, which is interesting in itself). I’m also now keen to add Wilkie Collins to my reading pile and brush off some old Arthur Conan Doyles.

Not a bad review for a book then, if its readers want to see the author and read some of the books her book discusses…