The Wicked Boy – review
I don’t often read true crime, but Kate Summerscale might have turned me into a devotee. At the very least I’ve become a devotee of her work. Her re-creation of the case of a thirteen-year-old boy, charged with murder in 1895 London, is meticulous. Her description of West Ham, described as “darkest England” by a Methodist preacher, is so dense with detail that you can almost taste the foul air, and feel yourself swept up by “the sea of working class”, living in their “little hideous slate-roofed houses of stucco and pale brick”, as Emile Zola put it.
It was in one of these hideous East London houses that the murder was committed, and Summerscale describes the scene with all the deftness of a thriller writer. Somehow she manages to pull off the same trick in her recreation of the inevitable series of judicial and coroners hearings. In another’s hands, these might be drab and tedious descriptions, but Summerscale picks and chooses well, and the narrative carries the reader along at a fast clip.
The second half of the book is a surprise. The Wicked Boy makes a turn from being a story about the investigation of a terrible murder to a story of redemption. But the tone doesn’t turn mawkish with it. Summerscale does a great job of finding the drama in her character, even through the eyes of others – and the book manages to hold the feeling of suspense right to the end.