Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I’ve been reading more of it than usual over the last few weeks in preparation for Nonfiction November. Murder by the Book, an account of a true crime which took place in Victorian London, sounded appealing to me because it promised to explore the possible links between the crime and some of the bestselling novels of the day.

The book begins by describing the events of 6th May 1840, when Lord William Russell’s housemaid found her master in bed with his throat slit. Suicide was suspected at first, but with his head almost severed from his body, this theory was dismissed and a murder investigation began. Russell, an elderly widower, had been leading a quiet, unremarkable life, living alone (apart from his servants) in a respectable Mayfair street. Who could possibly have wanted him dead – and why?

The murder sent shockwaves throughout London, with everyone – including Queen Victoria herself – following the news and voicing their opinions. What made this particular case so shocking was that when the culprit was identified and questioned, it was found that before committing the murder he had been reading Jack Sheppard, a well-known novel by William Harrison Ainsworth. Based on the story of a real life 18th century criminal, Jack Sheppard had been published as a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany from January 1839 until February 1840. With plots involving murder, theft and violence, crime novels of this type had become known as ‘Newgate Novels’ (a reference to the Newgate Prison), and were hugely popular with the public, partly due to the rise in literacy levels during the first half of the 19th century. Following the Russell murder, a debate began regarding the suitability of this sort of reading material.

I enjoyed Murder by the Book, but I didn’t find the true crime element particularly interesting. There didn’t seem to be a lot of mystery surrounding Russell’s death and the murderer was arrested quite quickly. Although Claire Harman did manage to flesh the story out, on its own it wouldn’t have been enough to form a compelling book. The parts where she discussed Jack Sheppard and other popular novels of the time were of much more interest to me. I haven’t read Jack Sheppard, or anything else by William Harrison Ainsworth, and I’d had no idea that it had been so successful in its time. The book was adapted for stage many times, including some musical versions, so even if people hadn’t read it they were likely to have seen it performed.

The reactions of other authors were interesting; Charles Dickens had apparently been a friend of Ainsworth’s, but distanced himself from him after the Russell incident, doing all he could to defend the reputation of his own Oliver Twist, which covered similar themes. Both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray followed the outcome of the murder trial and attended the hanging of the culprit and some of their thoughts on this are given in the book.

Anyway, the social aspects of the book were fascinating, even if the true crime parts weren’t – although I was surprised that Claire Harman didn’t draw more parallels between the Jack Sheppard controversy and the perceived influence of modern television, music and video games on violent behaviour. The book reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy and I think if you enjoy one you might enjoy the other.

Thanks to Viking for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy It’s July 1895 and Robert and Nattie Coombes could be any two young boys enjoying the hot summer weather. They go to see a cricket match, they play in the park, they take a trip to the seaside and they go fishing. Their father, a ship’s steward, is at sea and the boys tell anyone who asks that their mother is visiting her sister in Liverpool and that a family friend, John Fox, is staying with them while she’s away. However, there is more to the situation than meets the eye and it’s not long before the neighbours grow concerned. Why did Emily Coombes not mention to anyone that she was going away – and what is that horrible smell drifting down from the bedroom upstairs?

When the police are eventually called to the house at 35 Cave Road, they make a shocking discovery: it seems that Emily Coombes has been there all the time, her dead body decomposing in the summer heat. Her eldest son, Robert, immediately confesses to stabbing his mother to death ten days earlier. In the trial which follows, the court attempts to make sense of this terrible crime. Robert is only thirteen years old (one year older than his brother, Nattie); what would make a boy of this age commit such a cruel and cold-blooded act?

This may sound like the plot of a crime novel, but it’s not – it’s actually a true story and the events I’ve been describing above really did take place in London’s East End in 1895. In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale gives an account of the murder, the inquest and the trial, exploring some of the factors which may have led to Robert’s actions before going on to look at what happened to him after he was found guilty.

This is the third book I’ve read (or attempted to read) by Summerscale. I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which was also based on a true crime, but I found Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, about a Victorian divorce scandal, difficult to get into and I abandoned it after a few chapters. I’m pleased to report that I liked The Wicked Boy much more than Mrs Robinson, though not as much as Mr Whicher, which had a stronger mystery element. There’s really no mystery at all about the Robert Coombes case; we know almost from the beginning what the crime is and who is responsible for it. Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no more questions to be asked. The official verdict was that Robert was “guilty but insane” and no clear motive was ever identified, but Summerscale does devote a large portion of the book to discussing Robert’s childhood and family background in an attempt to understand what could drive a thirteen-year-old boy to kill his mother.

Where the murder and the trial themselves are concerned, Summerscale sticks to the facts and doesn’t resort to too much speculation or personal opinion. However, she also spends a lot of time looking at what life was like in general for working-class Londoners towards the end of the Victorian era. Robert and Nattie Coombes would have been among the first generations to be educated at the new Board Schools which were established after the Elementary Education Act of 1870, but there were many people who believed that making education available to everyone was a bad idea. It meant that more children were able to read and therefore had access to ‘penny dreadfuls’, cheap adventure novels aimed at boys which were thought to be a bad influence on impressionable minds. Robert Coombes had a collection of these sensational stories, something that was seized upon in the same way that people sometimes blame violent video games for encouraging modern day teenagers to commit crimes.

I found all of this fascinating to read about, but was slightly less interested in the second half of the book which covers Robert’s time at Broadmoor, the asylum where he was sent after his trial, and what happened after he was released. I understand why the author wanted to follow Robert’s story through to its conclusion, but I just didn’t have enough interest in him as a person to want to read such a long account of his later life. Apart from this, I did enjoy reading The Wicked Boy and am glad I gave Kate Summerscale another chance after my disappointment with Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.