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There are many different ways in which true crime can be challenging. Telling a story without sensationalism, or gratuitous focus on violence or sex, sticking to facts can all be challenging when faced with the reality of the consequences and impacts of crime. To an extent all crime challenges our sense of the world, and how we would wish it was ordered, but nothing can challenge our sense of the world as much as when the worst of crimes, murder, is committed by a child. Children committing murder is rare, but it does happen, and sometimes at ages which leave us distinctly uncomfortable.
The Wicked Boy recounts the story of child murderer Robert Coombes, who at thirteen killed his mother, with his twelve year-old brothers knowledge, while their father was away at sea. Summerscale tells the story not just of the murder, but also the effect that it’s reported had on Victorian society. Victorians had a particularly contradictory relationship with children. On the one hand they revered the “innocence” of childhood as a blessed and pure state, on the other hand the factories and mills which were powering the expansion of the empire were manned by children, who were regularly killed or injured in unsafe and inhumane working conditions. That’s all without taking rampant child sexual abuse that was practiced at the time.
Coombes actions and the subsequent trial sent the public into a frenzy of apportioning blame, which mainly falls on penny dreadful, the cheap, and salacious fiction publications full of adventure and crime. Anyone who lived in Britain through the trial of James Bulger’s murderers will remember a similar frenzy around so called “video nasties,” a term, steeped in moral panic, for the horror genre. However one does not need to dig much further into the case to see that popular culture was not so much to blame as Coombes possible head injury in infancy, on top of a strained and difficult relationship with his mother, accompanied by what we would now call physical abuse, but at the time many would accept as a normal part of discipline.
The Coombs case indeed throws up a mirror to our apparently more modern age, where we consider ourselves to have more understanding. The Wicked Boy however does not lead one to the satisfactory conclusion that we would react differently now-a-days because we are so much more knowledgeable and clever. Instead it shows us that despite the great advances we’ve made both socially and in technology, once you scratch the surface the human reaction to children committing murder is the same tumultuous mix of shock, horror, pity, and disbelief, accompanied by the kind of wild blame seeking and judgement that speaks more of calming anxiety than the search for true understanding.
The observation that history often repeats itself is not a new one. However we are so often apt to forget that history. The many cases of child murderers both before and after Coombs, and which stretch into our own era attest to that. The Wicked Child does not devle into what we need to do as a society to make sure that these things do not happen, or at the very least, don’t happen more often. Which is the right call in this case, as it is not the job of history to tell us what we need to do right now, but it is it’s job to let us know that we are now rhyming with the worst of it’s couplets.
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