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The story of a terrible crime in Victorian East London

Early in the morning of Monday 8 July 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his 12-year-old brother Nattie set out from their small, yellow-brick terraced house in East London to watch a cricket match at Lord’s. Their father had gone to sea the previous Friday, the boys told their neighbours, and their mother was visiting her family in Liverpool.


Over the next ten days Robert and Nattie spent extravagantly, pawning their parents’ valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. But as the sun beat down on the Coombes house, an awful smell began to emanate from the building.  


In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale has uncovered a fascinating true story of murder and morality – it is not just a meticulous examination of a shocking Victorian case, but also a compelling account of its aftermath, and of man’s capacity to overcome the past.


2017 Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Fact Crime


Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction & the Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work

Praise for ‘The Wicked Boy’

‘Gripping... 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’

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

Her research is needle-sharp and her period detail richly atmospheric, but what is most heartening about this truly remarkable book is the story of real-life redemption that it brings to light’

John Carey, Sunday Times (London) (£) 


‘An accomplished feat of research and storytelling..., wrapping controversial issues into a tense, fluent narrative’

Hilary Mantel


‘Such a gripping and moving read … As fascinating as any novel’

Val McDermid


‘Summerscale is an exquisite storyteller. She is judicious in her use of detail, subtle in her unspoken connections between the past and the present.... This is the story of one wicked boy, but it is also a plea for compassion and empathy’

Daisy Goodwin, The Times (London) (£)


‘Kate Summerscale brings the same painstaking intensity to her description of the case and its aftermath in The Wicked Boy as she did to her bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Summerscales signature virtue is her attention to detail, crucial in any mystery, but here the question hanging over the case is not whodunit, but why. In following Roberts story to Broadmoor and beyond, she gives all the participants back their humanity

David Horspool, Guardian Books of the Year 


‘For Summerscale, who had such a hit with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, this material is a gift, and her riveting tale takes in everything from the penny dreadfuls of the day to conditions at Broadmoor. Once again the author proves a subtle pathologist, her scapel slicing away the skin of late-Victorian Britain to expose the sicknesses beneath’

Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times Books of the Year (£)


For her latest forensic investigation into the throttled passions of Victorian family life, Summerscale has moved forward 35 years to 1895 and turned away from the provincial bourgeois home to the working-class terraces of London’s East End... [a] fine account... subtle and confident’

Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian

‘A fascinating account of a murder and its endless reverberations’

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

‘As Kate Summerscale has proved before, she has a wonderfully sharp eye for stories which turn out not to be quite what they seem... a remarkably heartening story’

John Preston, Daily Mail


‘An extraordinary book which will stay with you’

Vanessa Berridge, Daily Express


‘Summerscale bolsters her reputation as a superior historical true crime writer with this moving account of a Victorian-age murder... [her] dogged research yields a tragedy that reads like a Dickens novel, including the remarkable pay-off at the end’  

Publishers Weekly, starred review


‘Through a mixture of serendipity and meticulous research, Ms Summerscale is able to add one final, heart-stopping twist. She writes throughout with measured restraint; but in her last paragraph she allows her feelings to show. The murderer Robert Coombes has won her admiration and affection — even love’

The Economist


‘Ultimately, the narrative is an exploration of Victorian attitudes to juvenile crime, and this pacy slice of social history acts as both hawk-eyed prosecution and gentle defence’ 

Zoe Apostolides, Financial Times 


‘Compelling... it gripped and stoked the national imagination, just as it surely will again’

Philippa Stockley, Evening Standard


‘She uses the gripping facts of a 19th-century scandal and trial to explore the shifting social, political, and cultural map of Victorian society. Her scrupulous research, lucid interpretation of the evidence, and, above all, her human sympathy with the characters in her drama, make her, in John le Carré’s words, the author “of the finest documentary writing” ’​

Piers Plowright, Camden New Journal


‘A work of social history that is as compassionate as it is absorbing... we almost feel we are wandering through these scenes ourselves’

Rebecca Gowers, The Oldie


‘An absorbing account of fin-de-siecle Britain... [and] a powerful story about vulnerable and neglected children, both then and now’

Daisy Hay, Daily Telegraph


‘It’s a fascinating story and Summerscale tells it beautifully... [Her] sympathetic and intelligent study is full of social interest too. I can’t imagine that it could have been done better’ 

Allan Massie, The Scotsman

The Wicked Boy is in the tradition that Summerscale established with Suspicions, literary true crime. But in many respects it might be regarded as better, and certainly more powerful...Very little true crime is moral beyond the author's self-righteousness, but this book triumphantly is’ 

Lucy Sussex, Sydney Morning Herald


‘Summerscale’s remarkable new book... offers a glimpse not just of the complexity of human behaviour but also of the faultlines running through Victorian society... And the story Summerscale has uncovered about Robert’s later years is both entirely unexpected and profoundly moving’ 

James Bradley, The Australian

‘Summerscale... expertly probes the deep anxieties of a modernizing era. Even better, she brings rare biographical tenacity and sympathy to bear’

Ann Hulbert, The Atlantic

‘When the novelist P.D. James turned to true crime... she didn’t stop at presenting a lucid and thorough account of a representative crime from the early 19th century. Her objective was to disprove the legal conclusions of this adjudicated crime, advance her own theories and suggest who the true murderer might have been. Summerscale... shares that expansive vision... Irresistible’

Marilyn Stasio, New York Review of Books 

‘A book that began with a murder — and with a sense that the world was unraveling — ends with a life saved. Summerscale doesn’t overplay the contemporary relevance of Coombes’ story, but the book undeniably unsettles the idea that the evil, manic child of the first half of the book can’t be redeemed’

Lyz Lenz, Pacific Standard


‘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’


‘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’

Daily Herald (Chicago)

‘A dazzling mix of reportage and literary thriller’                  

          Jackie McGlone, The Herald (Glasgow)


‘No other writer could have made the Coombes case so fascinating and so vivid... It would be impossible to read this dry-eyed’

Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

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