I think this is Summerscale’s best to date. I devoured this one in less than 24 hours.

Two normal boys, not yet in their teens, play at truancy and go to Lord’s Cricket Grounds to watch a match. Harmless fun, really. The elder brother has just aged out of the mandatory school age anyway.

What’s peculiar is their sudden (relative) wealth and lack of adult supervision — at any point. After several days, the body of their mother is discovered in the front bedroom upstairs, mutilated and covered with a sheet. The boys are instantly suspected and arrested. The book follows their trials and their later lives.

Summerscale pulls in not just trial transcripts and newspaper articles; she dusts off witness statements from old police files and finds copies of long forgotten penny dreadfuls that were seized in the arrest.

Back page ad from "Secret Service, Issue 528
Back page ad from “Secret Service”, Issue 528

She also gives historical context, fully describing the social world in which these people lived — a father who sailed cattle across the Atlantic, a system that recognized the need for basic education and punished abusive parents, the treatment of mental patients, and a public that both loved and abhorred the salacious stories in the newspapers and cheap novels. These ancillary items are what make the book shine.

That evening, a girl from Cave Road called on Aunt Emily at her house on Boleyn Road, East Ham. The girl said that she had been sent by her mother, who had noticed an unpleasant small at number 35 and did not think that all was right.

There was no running water when Robert and Nattie got home from the park. At 5 p.m. the East London Water Company has shut off West Ham’s supply without warning; the reserves were so low that the company had decided to open its tapes for only two and a half hours a day. East London slowly became suffused with the smell of unflushed drains. ~Pg. 32

35 Cave Road. From Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper 21st July 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.
35 Cave Road. From Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper 21st July 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.

Note the open window with curtain blowing outward…

She meticulously follows the murderer’s trial and sentencing — though she doesn’t end there. The effects of the conviction are still felt to this day and it makes for a sparkling epilogue. It is a harrowing reminder of just how recent the Victorian era is — including its standard of living and understanding of psychology. It is also a satisfying ending to a bizarre story.

My thanks to Brooke at Penguin Press for the review copy.

Published by Penguin Press
Jul 12, 2016
352 Pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4
ISBN 9781594205781

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