In 1895, two young brothers, Robert and Nattie Coombes were to find themselves embroiled in what became known as The Plaistow Tragedy. Spending their days away from their East London home and frequenting Lord’s to watch the cricket, the boys were living in denial of the horror that was about to unfold. In soaring temperatures, an unpleasant smell was beginning to emerge from their home at Cave Road. When the police eventually investigated, what they saw was a sight no one should ever witness – the mother of the two boys had been brutally murdered and her body was in an advanced state of decomposition. Immediately, thirteen-year-old Robert admits responsibility and what follows is a criminal trial that grabs the attention of the press and starts a debate about the ‘penny dreadful’ books that the boy enjoyed reading.
One of my favourite books in recent years is Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher so I was pleased to discover that this author had, yet again, turned to a real Victorian crime (albeit a lesser-known one) in her latest offering. It is obvious that a lot of research has been undertaken in order to provide a full overview of the life of Robert Coombes, both before and after the trial. Although there is no element of doubt as to who the guilty party is, Kate Summerscale succeeds in building up enough intrigue about the other involved characters to make you wonder how, if at all, they will be implicated.
One of the main surprises in this book is how your attitude changes towards Robert Coombes. Portrayed from a young age as someone who was heavily influenced by the gruesome events he read about in his chosen literature, by the end of his life we see a complete change in character to someone who had integrity and a caring personality. This could not have been predicted as the events at Cave Road were taking place.
If you enjoyed any of Kate Summerscale’s previous books, you are sure to enjoy this one.
With thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with a copy of the book.