The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
This is the third book I’ve read by Kate Summerscale, after Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace and the excellent Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which I haven’t yet got round to posting about. Like her earlier books, it is a vivid recreation of 19th-century history based on dramatic cases heard in the Victorian courts and reported in the press and, like Mr Whicher, it focuses in on a horrific act of murder. Unlike Mr Whicher, however, this is not a whodunnit. The ‘who’ is clearly and frankly admitted from the very beginning. Summerscale’s investigations seek to understand more about the ‘why’ and to unpick the historical context of the crime and the way in which it was reported by the rapacious press.
On Monday 8 July 1895, in the midst of a London heatwave, two young boys set off to watch a cricket game at Lords. The eldest, Robert, is thirteen; his younger brother Nathaniel, known as Nattie, is twelve. Two days later, the boys arrive at the docks near their home in Plaistow, East London, searching for an old family acquaintace, John Fox. On finding him, they ask him to come to look after them, as their father is working at sea and their mother has gone away. For a week, the three live a carefree, convivial life, but their neighbours and relations are beginning to worry. Where has Emily Coombes – devoted, respectable and loving wife and mother – gone, leaving her two young boys home alone? When will she be back? And what is that unpleasant smell coming from the upper front bedroom?
Inevitably, it transpires that Emily Coombes has been there all along, murdered by her elder son a full ten days before her decaying body is discovered on 17 July. Robert admits the crime straight away, but the complexities come into play when the inquest and trial courts attempt to understand this unnatural murder. What would drive an intelligent, well-educated boy to commit such a heartless act? And so Summerscale takes us deep into the diagnostic realms of Victorian justice, where theories of degeneracy and predisposition sit along nascent efforts to understand the emotional and psychological state that might cause an apparently sane person to kill another. And, while the courts seek to understand Robert, the press and general public see the crime as yet more proof of their declining age, in which good old-fashioned values have been perverted by new ideas.
It’s interesting, actually, to compare the moral panics of the late 19th century with those of our own day. There was widespread concern that young boys were being desensitised through the bloody, violent nature of their entertainments, which encouraged solitariness and a lack of engagement with the real world. Nowadays gaming is in the crossfire; back then it was the penny dreadfuls: the cheap, sensational boys’ novels telling stories of criminals and gangsters, cowboys, adventurers and pirates. There was also a feeling – probably shared by every generation that has ever lived – that the young were becoming aggressive and cocky, deviating from the proper values that their parents held. But there are also marked differences. Summerscale hints that the crime, which involved a well-read working-class boy, might have touched off fears about the education of the lower classes: issues which didn’t feature quite so strongly in the upper-class case featured in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. And Robert Coombes’s crime happened at the moment when physicians were only just beginning to consider the confusing, dislocating impact of adolescence upon the youthful mind.
As in her previous books, Summerscale’s research is extremely impressive. She has mined all manner of sources, from archives and newspapers to diaries and genealogical websites, in an effort to reconstruct the circumstances and consequences of this matricide. As ever, she writes with compelling flair, which brings the story to life even if we have to take some of the narrative-style descriptions with a pinch of salt. But for some reason I just didn’t warm to this as much as Mr Whicher. I think I was put off by the goriness of the crime and the frequent references to the maggot-ridden state of the body when found – there was more of a ‘true crime’ element to this book, while Mr Whicher was obviously more of a detective story, and it’s simply a matter of taste that I prefer the latter.
And I would argue that there’s less true mystery here, contrary to what the title suggests: this isn’t a book where you keep reading because you’re excited by the prospect of discovering the villain at last. It’s more of a traditional biography, and Summerscale manages to evoke each of her several sets with masterly strokes, from the cramped, humble streets of Plaistow to the incongruous comfort of Broadmoor and the hardy wilds of Australia. It will, of course, appeal to those who’ve read her other books and rightly so. But it didn’t, for me, have quite the same gripping quality that I enjoyed so much in Mr Whicher, nor the twists and turns of Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s only my opinion, and I hope that other admirers of Summerscale’s will drop by to add their own thoughts on her most recent excursion into the dark cases of the 19th-century law courts.
Helen has also reviewed this book and you can find her thoughts here.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.