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Early one morning in the summer of 1895, a 13-year-old boy named Robert Coombes stabbed his mother to death in her bed in east London. The weapon was a sailor’s sheath knife with a 4.5in blade, which the boy had bought four or five days earlier. Before the murder, the pair had been sleeping side by side.
For the next 10 days, Coombes and his younger brother Nattie left her to rot while they played truant from school, enjoyed the cricket at Lord’s and shored up their diminishing fund of money by pawning family valuables. It was only the smell of their mother’s decomposing body that led to the discovery of the crime.
When the case came to trial, a police sergeant fainted when describing the scene in the bedroom, as did two women in the public gallery. But when the writer Kate Summerscale first came across the story in Victorian newspapers, from whose densely printed pages she has found the material for her last two bestsellers, her predominant feeling was one of pity. “I was most moved by him,” she says, sitting at the kitchen table in her north London flat. “I straightaway felt that this was the most horrific thing to do to his mother, but it was also the most terrible blight on his own life.”
Her new book, The Wicked Boy, opens with an account of the lost days after the murder. “The thing that really got to me is the idea of the boys alone with the body,” says Summerscale. “That sense of them being in an almost fugue state, somewhere between fantasy and reality, because until the body was discovered, it was like it hadn’t happened.”
Summerscale’s books are filled with scenes that might have emerged from the overheated imagination of a Victorian novelist but which are, in fact, scrupulously researched and entirely true. The most famous, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), which sold spectacularly and spawned an ITV drama adaptation, is as taut and finely plotted as a suspense novel. Its hero, Jack Whicher, was one of Scotland Yard’s first detectives, and his investigation into the murder of a three-year-old child provided the prototype for a thousand country-house mysteries. In Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012), meanwhile, a marriage begins to come undone when its leading character reveals details of her infidelity while talking aloud in a fever.
When Summerscale started research on The Wicked Boy, she had doubts about the suitability of Coombes as a protagonist. There was never any question that he was guilty of his mother’s murder, and reports of his trial at the Old Bailey noted his smiling, insouciant manner. “I didn’t know to begin with whether there was something just too chilly about him to ever warm to,” she says. “But as it went on, I found that I did feel he was a whole and tender person.”
Her discoveries about the later period of Coombes’ life, including his imprisonment at a surprisingly bucolic Broadmoor, fill the latter third of her book. We travel to Gallipoli, and then to Australia, where Summerscale meets a frail 95-year-old man who had known Coombes years after the murder. In order to speak to him, she has to promise his children that she will not mention the crime.
“I try to write about things that have happened a long time ago, in order not to risk upsetting and hurting people who have already been hurt by violence,” she says. “So it was a real shock to discover that news of the murder was still so terrible to certain people that it was seen as dangerous to their health.”
When Summerscale met the last descendant of the family from The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a man who, according to her theory, was related to both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime, she was aware of a similar sensitivity. Out of some sense of family loyalty, he refused to believe that the murdered boy’s half-sister might have been his killer. “Although,” Summerscale adds, laughing, “his wife did.”
True crime books have a way of getting under our skin. As readers, we are aware of an uneasy sensation that our interest in their contents is unhealthy; that we are rubbernecking at the suffering of real people. “If the families of victims are alive, and you are seeking to get at the world as it looked to the people who did violent acts, then it’s quite dangerous work,” says Summerscale. “It’s a genre that has a kind of sleazy aspect to it. But I rather enjoy that. It’s very live territory, the morals of it are quite insistent. It carries that slight charge of, ‘Is it healthy to read?’ ‘Would it make you do this stuff?’ I hope that, as I write my books, I try to acknowledge the ways in which this is a sort of voyeurism.”
As it happened, the idea of the dangerous effects of reading added an extra frisson to Coombes’ trial. A theory of the day suggested that exposure to “penny dreadfuls”, the era’s cheap, red-blooded popular fiction, might make moral monsters of its readers. Coombes, a working-class boy, was seen as particularly susceptible to its excesses — just as, nearly a century later, the killers of James Bulger were said to have fallen under the spell of Chucky, the knife-wielding doll from the slasher horror film Child’s Play 3.
“I think it’s kind of ridiculous, of course he didn’t murder his mother because he read penny dreadfuls,” says Summerscale. “But I’m not totally dismissive of the idea. You can’t have it both ways — you can’t think that books and TV and film shape people, and then say that they’re completely irrelevant when people do bad things.”
As a child, Summerscale got her lurid kicks from the sprawl and drama of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Now she gets an equivalent thrill from capturing the atmosphere of their age in her own work. “It’s like an intense form of escapism,” she says. “It reminds me of reading when you’re a child, when you really lost yourself and, actually, researching and writing approaches that for me now.”
She came across the story of Mr Whicher by scouring the open shelves of the London Library, paying particular attention to the sections marked “trials”, “crime” and “insanity”. She is drawn inexorably back to the Victorian period, “maybe because it was the beginning of my reading experience”, she says, “but also because they’re sort of like us. Just enough like us to be able to recognise them and trace a line.”
Because her father was a diplomat, Summerscale spent the first 10 years of her life abroad. The family was posted to Japan and then, when Summerscale was five, to Chile. There, she became hooked on telenovelas. “They were as much an influence on me as anything I’ve read,” she says. “The ones I can remember had a lot of intense romance — star-crossed lovers, gipsy girls, elopements, that sort of thing — and dangerous fights and murders as well. There were things like people pretending that they were paralysed and going around in wheelchairs for 20 years. In a way, they were like Victorian novels writ large, in crazy ways.”
On her visits back to England she was an attentive student of the culture, glued to episodes of Jackanory, and carefully memorising the names of sweets. But when she returned to the country for good, at the age of 10, she found she didn’t really understand it at all. “It took a few years to acclimatise and to feel like I belonged.”
She says she likes “looking from the outside as well as the inside” when she writes. “That’s why I like writing about things that have happened a while ago. That sense that you can identify with things and feel them, but also that you can look at them rather than just being in the moment, when you can’t see anything properly.”
Summerscale learnt the art of distilling lives while working on The Daily Telegraph’s obituaries desk. She answered to Hugh Massingberd, a bon vivant with a gift for humorous understatement; in his parlance, a crashing bore became a “tireless raconteur”, a flasher “an uncompromisingly direct ladies man”. The great and the good got their due but so, too, did the mad and bad.
“I wrote one about a man called Richard Pape,” says Summerscale, “who had been an extraordinarily brave and reckless war hero, and then continued behaving as if he were in a war for the rest of his life, completely out of control. He was almost a sociopath, the kind of person who’d never have a book written about them, who’d never be held up in esteem, but whose life was incredibly revealing about how character operates in different environments.” The obituaries were not signed and, for Summerscale, who had been chary of writing before, this proved a liberation. “It gave me the courage and the feeling of playfulness to write,” she says. “The nerve, somehow.”
The Queen of Whale Cay (1997), her first book, was inspired by an obituary she’d written. It became her first bestseller, and enabled her to pay off the mortgage on her flat. It’s a portrait of Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs, an heiress who loved speedboat-racing, women — she’s thought to have had affairs with both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich — and a foot-high doll named Lord Tod Wadley, with whom she was eventually cremated.
Although Carstairs was something of a monster, ruling over the inhabitants of her Bahamian island in semi-feudal style, Summerscale didn’t judge her. “I think in the course of writing about people, I nearly always — and maybe this is just true of life — feel more and more sympathetic,” she says. “With Joe Carstairs, Lord Tod Wadley became the emblem of her vulnerability. I think a change comes in me just by knowing them, feeling I understand them. You start to feel affection, even love, for them.”
The same was true of Coombes. In the century or so since his trial, our attitude towards children who kill has hardly softened. “I can remember the James Bulger case, where those boys were tried and found guilty,” says Summerscale. “The sort of loathing that was directed at them. But with Robert Coombes the jury went out of their way to save him from the gallows. There was a real will to have compassion for him because he was so young, regardless of how psychopathic or evil his crimes seemed.”
Summerscale has a son of 14 herself. But although it would be tempting to frame her attitude towards Coombes as some outgrowth of maternal sympathy, the same generosity of spirit is perceptible in all her work. “It was very pleasing to find my initial sense of pity for him kind of . . . justified,” she says. “And it does seem emblematic and symbolic to me, because it’s easier with a child to feel pity for the perpetrator as well as the victim. But why not for anyone?”
“The Wicked Boy” is published by Bloomsbury. www.katesummerscale.com
Photographs: Tereza Cervenova; British Library; Bloomsbury