Kate Summerscale’s latest exploration of Victorian crime (her previous books, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace and, particularly, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, made her name) concerns a young boy called Robert Coombes who early in July 1895 took a knife to his mother and killed her. For a week or so, Robert and his brother Nattie lived the high life, spending the housekeeping on trips to the cricket and the theatre, their savage idyll only brought to a close when a relative barged in and discovered their mother’s rapidly decomposing, maggot-infested corpse.
Summerscale ranges far and wide, the depth of her research – into penny dreadfuls (a lovely quote from the American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall in 1904 worries about ‘a love of cheap fiction… (when) at the age of twelve many boys were seized by a ‘reading craze’), into life in Broadmoor (where Robert is eventually incarcerated and where, amongst other sublime details we learn of a cricket team comprising “a railway van boy who hit his mother on the head with a hammer…, a lance-corporal who knifed a fellow soldier, … a renowned Boer gunner who had shot a reporter through the head in Mafeking… (and) an office boy who attacked his boss with an axe…”), and the effects of industrialisation on society at the turn of the century (“Here more than anywhere in England, it seemed that the world was transforming as the century turned, mutating at unnatural speed, throwing up freaks, portents, atavistic selves, precocities and perversions. It was a time of tumult and foreboding”) – a frequent joy to behold.
You can tell she takes a sort of wry pleasure in discovering the kinds of hysterical quotes that still to this day grace the front pages of rags such as The Daily Mail:
‘”We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic, a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria,” wrote the Hungarian author Max Nordau in Degeneration, a work of 1892 published in English early in 1895…’
The Pall Mall Gazette, for another instance, greatly lamented the fact that Robert (and his exonerated brother) “are not to be hung”:
“It would be well if we could choke such moral abortions at birth, as we now choke physical ones. But since we cannot diagnose them at sight, it is surely wiser, cheaper, and kinder to dispose of them at once, when they do declare themselves, with no more excitement or doubt than a housemaid gives to the crushing of a beetle.”
Summerscale is fascinated by the duality at the heart of the case, the way in which Robert is both “the good boy and the bad, child and man, beast and sophisticate”, but it is his eventual exoneration that you suspect tipped her fancy into thinking, yes, this is a substantial enough subject for a book. We learn:
“Compared to other young murderers, young matricides rarely have a history of violence. Compared to older mother-murderers, they rarely have a history of psychosis. Their mothers tend to be dominating and intrusive; their fathers typically are passive or absent figures.”
Summerscales sympathies loom large. As we see Robert, much later, a stretcher bearer in the Australian campaign in Gallipoli, a lone farmer taking pity on a young victim of domestic violence, we wonder if Robert came to place himself in harm’s way as part of a process of redemption. The epilogue of the book (where Summerscale got to meet the young man, then aged 90 and living in a care home, whose life Robert made such an indelible imprint on) places Summerscale herself within the action (having to defend her vision to suspicious relatives) and adds a genuine humanism to proceedings.
All told, it’s a staggering work of heartbreaking research, a truly compelling read and the kind of book you can imagine being lapped up by your mum (who only ever reads crime fiction), your brother (a fan of sensationalist true crime) and your more literary wife (who would get along with the fascinating detail and the exquisite writing) – a book, then, likely to be enjoyed by anyone who can stomach a darker turn of phrase, a cloud of horseflies and a stench likely to be smelled days later, half a street away.
Any Cop?: A deliciously dark true crime story that eschews sensationalism (for the most part) in order to root out the truth (or as much of the truth as can be found) in a hundred plus year old mystery. Recommended.