The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale describes the life and crime of Robert Allen Coombes (1882-1949). The book is a journalistic overview of the crime and trial that followed but it also explores human behaviour. Yes, Coombes killed his mother but what moved him isn’t as clear-cut as it seems in the beginning of the story.
At first people thought that this evil large-headed child with “his skull projecting at the back, his ears big noticeably standing out” had planned to kill his mother in cold blood. After all, he had told his younger brother that he would and had purchased a knife. This should smell like Lombroso’s work to you.
Summerscale mentions Hippolyte Bernheim as well. He explored whether power memories could remain hidden from your conscience and if they could be recovered with hypnosis. You can already see the train wreck of false memories and confessions coming your way.
In Robert’s case, he did commit the crime. How he did it was not the issue either. It was of course, the why. When you read the book you must keep an open mind. The trial centers on testimony from children (Robert’s and his brother’s), shifting impressions from teachers and neighbors, and of course, behavioral sciences in its infancy.
Just to tease your brain: due to a lack of space at home Robert and his mother slept in the same bed. Robert’s father was at sea. I am not suggesting an improper relationship but you cannot rule out any tensions due to this cohabitation situation.
Matricide after covert incest (or emotional incest) was not explored at trial. However, we have seen cases where a boy, after the departure of the father, saw his role change from son into husband. Just google “matricide and emotional incest” to find academic papers and cases. Again, I am not saying that his mother forced him into a “husband” role but nobody can rule it out. There are no witnesses who can tell what went on in that bedroom.
What I think is that at some point Robert sensed a change in his role and became confused. As a “parent” he saw what was done to his little brother, as a “husband” he might have wanted to change the rules, but as a son he saw how limited his choices were. And then he acted on impulse.
Again, I am not condoning crime but I do wish to offer this as a possible explanation that is not covered in the book. Robert did show tendencies to escape reality. He was fascinated by fantasy stories. Those stories were violent and often sexual in tone. Combine all these factors and you have one confusing childhood.
The author did a tremendous job tracing Robert’s life. She describes the trial, the punishment, and most importantly the behavioral changes in Robert after he was sent to Broadmoor Hospital.
Robert experienced one episode of depression and rebellion before coming to terms with his past and his limitations. He thrived in structured environments and organizations and ended up being a lifesaver to another troubled young man. At the end of the book you understand Robert a lot better. You realize that there was a lot more to the home situation, his parents’ marriage and interactions, and to his mental capacities to cope with extremely emotionally diverse situations. In the end, when Robert Allen Coombes passes away, you feel sorry for him. He was more than his mother’s murderer.
The book is filled with details that often make it hard to read. Summaries, lists, a map, and a timeline would clarify the story as it takes you around the world.
Highly recommended reading for those interested in behavioral sciences, criminology, and Victorian England.
Note: I was given an advanced uncorrected proof to review in exchange for an honest review. I have not read the final version that is on the market. This post is my honest opinion about the book.