In The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, Summerscale explores the complexity of a now-obscure Victorian cause célèbre.
How did you first learn about the Coombes case?
I came across it while browsing an old newspaper. I was immediately struck by the story: two boys who for 10 days in July 1895 lived it up in East London while the corpse of their murdered mother rotted in an upstairs bedroom. I was fascinated by the brothers, Robert and Nattie Coombes, ages 13 and 12—one apparently cool and callous when they were caught, the other sobbing and repentant.
How long did it take you to do all the investigative work required for this book?
I worked on this book for three years. I always do lots of research, but I rarely write about it. Usually, the sources are tucked away in the endnotes. But in this case, my research became integral to the story—I discovered that there was someone living who had known and cared for Robert Coombes, and who seemed not to have known about the murder he had committed as a boy. This brought home to me the reality and potency of the story. I had a sense of the past crashing into my present, and I realized that my narrative could have an impact on living people. To tell it properly, I needed to write about my discoveries and decisions and my journey to Australia to meet the man Robert had known.
Unlike your previous book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, this is a whydunit, not a whodunit—was that easier or harder to write?
The whodunit is a very suspenseful form, but I found plenty of opportunities for suspense in this story too. There is mystery and intrigue about why the murder is committed, how and when the brothers will be caught, how their father will react, what the courts will decide, what will become of the boys. As with Suspicions, I made decisions about how to arrange the facts to make the story as involving as possible.
Where do you draw the line between reporting and opining?
I research and assess the facts as scrupulously as I can, but I tell the story in my own way, and I enjoy that. I don’t tend to interpret the facts directly or give an overt opinion, but my interpretations are there in the shape, pattern, emphases, context that I give the story.
Do you have concerns about being pigeonholed as a true crime writer?
No. I think it’s a fascinating genre. True crime is ethically kind of precarious, often uncomfortably close to voyeurism, prurience, a fascination with violence, transgression, and pain—but it can examine the dark traits that it panders to, and for just this reason it has an unusual capacity to engage with questions about psychology, cruelty, culpability, emotional disturbance, damage, injustice, restitution, fear, pity, grief.