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Monday, May 16, 2016

The Golden Age of Murder and The Wicked Boy

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards provides an absorbing glimpse into the lives of the men and women who wrote crime and detective novels during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction between WWI and WWII.  The three grand dames of this period are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham--creators of Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, and Albert Campion. 

The Detection Club, "an elite but mysterious group of crime writers" was formed in 1930 and initially included 39 members including G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers.  This community of writers had standards, rules concerning their novels (which they often broke), and a sense of camaraderie.  Edwards explores the source of many of their ideas, the fact that they wrote books together; he details incidents in the authors lives that occurred in their books and delights at the way they had of mentioning their colleagues and their colleagues' books in their own novels. 

Full of fascinating material about the members of the club and the period between the wars, the book entertains as well as informs.  In fact, there is so much significant information that it should perhaps have been two books!  Because the authors were much influenced by real crimes, Edwards spends a good deal of time on those true crime stories that inspired elements of many of their novels.  One crime Edwards spends time on is the murder of a three-year-old child in 1860 that was investigated by Inspector Jonathan Jack Whicher (the prototype for the modern detective) and mentions Kate Summerscale's well-researched The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

Other than the fact  that there are so many digressions that interrupted the flow, I  loved the insight the book gives and was intrigued by much of what Edwards discovered about the Detection Club and its members.

Edwards gives an introduction explaining how he became interested in crime fiction very young and read all of Christie's books.  Since he is now the president of the Detection Club and a well-known crime writer himself, it is easy to see that his impeccable research began long before he decided to write The Golden Age of Murder.


Nonfiction.  2015.  Print length: 528 pages.
Almost as soon as I finished The Golden Age of Murder, NetGalley offered Kate Summerscale's The Wicked Boy!  I do love serendipity.

I found it strange and a little confusing that the book opens with a Prologue about an event in 1930, but at the very end of the book, the relevance of the incident is revealed.

In 1895, thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes killed his mother.  The murder, in and of itself, is shocking, but perhaps even more so is that Robert and his brother Nattie paid the rent and attended cricket matches and coffee shops for ten days as the body of Emily Coombes lay in her bed upstairs.

When the boys could no longer conceal the crime, the nation was shocked by both the matricide and the fact that Robert was so young.  The press coverage was astonishing and virulent.  Our current relationship with the press has many of the same problems, but present day press coverage (at least in the legitimate press),  is actually quite restrained when compared to the newspaper articles in 1895.

Summerscale gives well-documented and compelling accounts of the way the legal system of the time operated.  In the meantime, the press continued its garish coverage of details and possible causes for Robert's behavior--from physiognomy and the shape of Robert's head and features, to insanity, to a "preponderance of brain matter" (this from Robert's father as a diagnosis from the physician who treated Robert's headaches), to the influence of Penny Dreadfuls,  to the school systems that were (gasp) educating the poor.

Summerscale's research of the case and the time period is extensive (and not always relevant to the case at hand), but this tidbit caught my attention:

"In 1892 two Dundee runaways aged twelve and fourteen were apprehended in Newport, Wales, in possession of a revolver, a hundred ball cartridges, a travelling rug and a handwritten document:  'Directions for skedaddle:  Steal the money; go to the station, and get to Glasgow.  Get boat for America.  On arriving there, go to the Black Hills and dig for gold, build huts, and kill buffalo; live there and make a fortune.'"

I can see why Summerscale could not resist including it, even though it is the only truly humorous item in the book.

The opinions about children being pure and innocent had changed by the late 1800's.  Havelock Ellis wrote in 1890 that "Children are naturally egoists; they will commit all enormities...."  Psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne states that children are "diamond editions of very remote ancestors, full of savage whims and impulses...."  And Henry Maudsley, another pre-eminent psychiatrist wrote "Give an infant in arms power in its limbs equal to its passions, and it would be more dangerous than any wild beast."

There were a few others who took a different view, but psychologist James Sully believed that the treatment a child received from adults was "decisive in forming their characters and fate."  He also observed that "the young confused fact and fiction."  Sully's opinions were advanced for the time.

I'm almost always intrigued by educational philosophies and standards and was a little stunned by the requirements of the time.  "To achieve this standard [fourth standard], a child needed to recite eighty lines of poetry, read with fluency and expression from a passage chosen the the school inspector, write from dictation..." and much more.  Robert, obviously a bright boy was on the seventh level with even more rigorously stringent requirements and was also liked and respected by his teachers.

At his trial, Robert's lawyer asked one of his teachers if Robert were precocious in attempt to get an insanity plea.   According to the Dictionary of Psychological Medicine very precocious children were"more prone to madness than others."   Grantham was hoping for a verdict of insanity.

This review is getting quite long, so I'm going to try to curtail it a little.

Robert was found guilty by reason of insanity, but you will hate the judge.  Sentenced to Broadmoor, the "fortified criminal lunatic asylum that housed the most notorious killers in Britain," Robert was the youngest inmate there.  Many at the time thought this sentence was possibly worse than hanging.

What surprised me here is that the prevailing philosophy of Broadmoor under superintendent Dr. David Nicolson.  Nicolson humane view of his inmates was unusual, but supported by a few others who were making progress in the area of mental health, especially of the criminally insane.  Much of the information the author has gathered on the asylum at the time might be of use to our own illogical treatment of criminals.  The documented information shows the progressive attitudes of both Nicolson and Richard Brayn, who succeeded Nicolson.  

(digression--Oscar Wilde is mentioned on a couple of occasions in the work, and Nicolson and Brayn were asked to assess Wilde's mental condition.  The two doctors decided that Wilde was not mentally ill, but thanks to their suggestions, Wilde was transferred from Wandsworth prison to Reading gaol and at their recommendation, given "more food, more space, and more books.")

I keep saying I'm going to be brief and then adding more and more.  And this is just barely touching all of the important and significant information.  

The book continues through Robert's release when he was 30 after 17 years in Broadmoor, his emigration to Australia, his exemplary service during WWI, and his life after the war. Even at the beginning of the book, there is very little from Robert himself.  Most of the information comes from transcripts of the investigation and the trial, from his teachers and doctors, from documents at the asylum and from the military, and only at the end, information from one who knew him well.

The motivation for the murder is never truly available.  In the asylum, Robert had learned a skill, kept an allotment and grew fruits and vegetables, played cricket, learned new instruments, and became an excellent chess player.  His war service was courageous.  He could have been hanged for the murder, and there were frequent outcries at the time saying he should have been, but seeing what Robert survived, the circumstances he conquered, and the courage he exhibited as a stretcher bearer during the war makes the horror of the murder recede.

The book is about so much more than a boy who murdered his mother at thirteen--it is about the British social, legal, educational, and mental health systems at the turn of the century.  If you like history, especially Victorian history, I highly recommend The Wicked Boy.

NetGalley/Penguin Group

Crime/Nonfiction.  July 12, 2016.  Print length:  352 pages.


  1. Both books sound interesting, but especially The Wicked Boy. I loved Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. I just checked another non-fiction Victorian murder mystery out of the library; it's by Paul Thomas Murphy: Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane. I'll let you know if it's any good. :)

    1. Both books contained such intriguing information. I knew I'd seen a review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher somewhere when Martin Edwards mentioned it in The Golden Age of Murder. :) yours, most likely! A lot of a Golden Age dealt with famous murders in the Victorian period, but he didn't mention Pretty Jane. Look forward to your review, Lark.

  2. I love Summerscale! Glad to see she has a new book out!!

  3. These books sound like an interesting read! I've always thought The Wicked Boy is a fiction. Reading what Robert did really send chills to my bones. I think the author has made some well noted points about the child's psyche and what are the factors which may have triggered the boy into doing the deeds. It's definitely a book worth reading and pondering, though I know it'll affect me knowing that the murderer was a child.

    1. It is also interesting that there was never another violent episode in Robert's life. As a stretcher bearer during the war, his role took great courage, but was always in the role of helping others survive.

  4. The Wicked Boy sounds fascinating. I can see you really enjoyed it. I'd be really curious to read it as well. It's not a story I'm familiar with, but being interested in history, mental health and juveniles and crime, I can see how this would interest me.

    As a mystery lover, I also think I will look into the Golden Age of Murder. It's all so interesting!

    Thank you for sharing, Jenclair!

    1. Yes, I think The Wicked Boy would interest you, Wendy. Your career path would also give you a keener appreciation of both the failure of the legal system and the progressive attitudes of both Nicolson and Brayne. :)