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The Penguin Press



The Wicked Boy

From the internationally bestselling author, a deeply researched and atmospheric murder mystery of late Victorian-era London

     In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually she forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Robert confessed to having stabbed his mother, but his lawyers argued that he was insane. Nattie struck a plea and gave evidence against his brother. The court heard testimony about Robert’s severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals and his passion for ‘penny dreadfuls’, the pulp fiction of the day. He seemed to feel no remorse for what he had done, and neither the prosecution nor the defense could find a motive for the murder. The judge sentenced the thirteen-year-old to detention in Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in the land. Yet Broadmoor turned out to be the beginning of a new life for Robert–one that would have profoundly shocked anyone who thought they understood the Wicked Boy.

At a time of great tumult and uncertainty, Robert Coombes’s case crystallized contemporary anxieties about the education of the working classes, the dangers of pulp fiction, and evolving theories of criminality, childhood, and insanity. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.



“Kate Summerscale is deft at interweaving weaving her narrative with extensive quotes from court proceedings and press accounts. Don’t look to “The Wicked Boy” for either amped-up emotion or for sanitization of the facts. It reads like the successful and well-balanced offspring of a liaison between a crime novel and a scholarly paper.”— Florida Times Union

“A remarkable job of historical reconstruction…. In the time-honored tradition of Victorian crime stories, The Wicked Boy is a compelling mixture of the gruesome and the perfectly ordinary, a brew uniquely British…. a feat of genuine detective work.”Dallas Morning News

 “A chilling look at an infamous child murderer, The Wicked Boy will have you losing sleep.”Bustle

“In The Wicked Boy you’ll think you’re reading Dickens.”— NBC-2

“Summerscale’s command of the detail of Victorian life is impressive; her grasp of the nuances and characters of the individual personalities complete. “The Wicked Boy” is an extraordinary tale of black tragedy and hard-won redemption. Not to be missed by devotees of the Victorian Era.”— Daily Herald

“Ms. Summerscale has found a nifty literary specialty: resurrecting and reanimating, in detail as much forensic as it is novelistic, notorious true-life tales of the Victorian era… Enjoyable as an atmospheric tale of crime and punishment from a distant era written in lucid, limber prose, “The Wicked Boy” also implicitly raises questions that remain with us today… Ms. Summerscale’s easy mastery of what turns out to be a complicated, at times surprising narrative drives the book forward… Ms. Summerscale draws no firm psychological conclusions, but instead leaves the mystery of the boy and the man to our imaginations, where it pricks at us throughout the book.” –Charles Isherwood, New York Times

“Summerscale’s ambitious literary goal… is to position her close study of a specific crime within the broader context of the social and political climate in which it was committed. When the novelist P.D. James turned to true crime… [she] share[d] that expansive vision… Irresistible.”–Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

“Summerscale has taken her research to many levels of learning for the reader. It’s more than The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer—it’s a tale about change. It belongs on every reader’s bookshelf.”— New York Journal of Books  

“Narrative nonfiction that reads like a novel.”— Omnivoracious Best History Books of July

“The Wicked Boy is an absorbing piece of true-crime investigation, and a surprising and satisfying tale of redemption….a treat for true-crime fans.” —Shelf Awareness

“Summerscale specializes in revisiting scandals that reveal Victorians in the throes of their own morbid spells. She expertly probes the deep anxieties of a modernizing era. Even better, she brings rare biographical tenacity and sympathy to bear.” The Atlantic

“As engrossing as a novel.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Summerscale bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of Victorian-age murder that is a whydunit rather than a whodunit….[Her] dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable payoff at the end.”—Publishers Weekly (starred)

“This well-written story is not so much a true-crime tale or murder mystery as an excellent sociological study of turn-of-the-20th-century England.” —Kirkus Reviews

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