Day 976: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

Cover for The Wicked BoyDuring a scorching 1895 July in East London, Robert Coombes murdered his mother while she was sleeping. He and his younger brother Nattie continued to live in the house for ten days with their mother locked in her bedroom, decaying. They hocked items from the house for money and attended a cricket game and a play. They told neighbors and relatives their mother had gone to Liverpool to visit her sister. They invited a laborer named John Fox to live with them, and they all slept downstairs in the parlor. Their father was away at sea at the time.

When the boys’ Aunt Emily forced her way into the house and found the body, Robert told her that his mother had beaten Nattie and that Nattie had asked Robert to kill her when he gave the signal. This story later seemed to have been forgotten, and Nattie testified against Robert in trial.

This crime was shocking to the Victorians, and there were many theories about it, from the morally debilitating effects of the penny dreadfuls Robert loved to ideas about children’s innate base instincts that must be covered over by civilizing influences. No one really knows why Robert killed his mother, but journalist and writer Kate Summerscale has her ideas.

link to NetgalleySummerscale was able to follow Robert’s movements to Broadmoor Asylum after his committal and traced his career in World War I as an instrumentalist and stretcher bearer. At first I wondered where the epilogue was going but figured it was connected with the opening of the novel, about a fleeing boy.

I found this book very interesting. Although most of it focuses on the crime and trial, I found this story of a murderer’s redemption satisfying.

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Day 939: A Man Could Stand Up

Cover for A Man Could Stand UpBest Book of the Week!
At the beginning and end of A Man Could Stand Up, the third book of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, it is Armistice Day. In between, the book returns in time several months to the front.

Valentine Wannop is at her job as a schoolmistress in a London school when classes are dismissed because of the Armistice. But in the midst of all the confusion, Valentine receives a spiteful phone call from Lady MacMaster about Christopher Tietjens. Since Lady MacMaster has been spilling her poisonous lies to the headmistress, Valentine finds herself having to make plain to her what she barely understands herself.

Months earlier, Tietjens has been ordered to take second in command of a unit at the front. He was in a much safer position in charge of moving men, but General Campion has, as usual, miscontrued the events in the second book between Tietjens and his faithless wife and has transferred Tietjens to a position of more danger. Unfortunately, his commanding officer has been drinking too much, and Tietjens has to remove him from duty. The novel depicts the events of a chaotic night during a bombardment.

This novel has been considered one of the best books about World War I. Certainly I have enjoyed every minute reading about the principled Tietjens, whose every action has been misinterpreted, and his so far unfulfilled affair with Valentine Wannop.

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Day 926: No More Parades

Cover for No More ParadesBest Book of the Week!
The second book in Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology about World War I, No More Parades, begins as Christopher Tietjens is busy preparing a draft of men for the front in an atmosphere of almost total chaos. The discussion between Captain Tietjens and his fellow officers reveals the difficulties of this task, with shortages, supplies withheld from his troops because they are Canadian, and contradictory orders.

During this night, Tietjens is not able to retire to bed because of his duties. And one of his men is killed because of the lack of a helmet during a bombardment, helmets having been refused them. Since Tietjens recently refused the man leave because of fears he would go home and get himself killed over an unfaithful wife, he blames himself for the death.

Tietjens is already feeling rocky when Colonel Levin comes to tell him that his wife Sylvia has arrived. Levin has been sent by General Campion to advise him of this extremely compromising situation, women not being allowed there and Sylvia having come without papers.

Tietjens was under the impression that Sylvia had left him, after an evening where she acccused him of infidelity with Miss Wannop just before he returned to the front. He is in love with Miss Wannop, certainly, but he has never acted on it. In fact, it is Sylvia who has been consistently unfaithful.

Sylvia, though, is torn between the need to get some sort of reaction from Tietjens and the realization that she wants him back, that in fact, no man seems adult after him. However, she continues to try to injure him with his family, his commanding officer General Campion, and society.

This volume is a fascinating portrait of two unusual characters—Tietjens with his old-fashioned morality and Sylvia with none at all. This story is an indictment of the conduct of war but also a tale about a disappearing kind of man.

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Day 903: Some Do Not

Cover for Some Do NotBest Book of the Week!
Some Do Not is the first volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetrology “Parade’s End,” which is considered one of the great novels about World War I. For those who are interested, an excellent TV series came out a few years ago starring Benedict Cumberbatch (or maybe for those who are interested in Benedict Cumberbatch).

When we first meet Christopher Tietjens in 1912 or so, he is separated from his wife Sylvia and on a golfing trip with MacMaster, his coworker and friend from school days. We eventually learn that Sylvia was having an affair with a married man when she met Tietjens, and the paternity of their son is in question. Sylvia has run off to Europe with a lover, but Christopher has just received a letter from her asking to come back.

Christopher Tietjens is a big clumsy man who is a sort of genius with facts and figures and works for the government. (That was the one weakness of the casting of Cumberbatch, who is neither big nor clumsy, in the part, as several times he is forced to refer to himself that way, which struck me as odd before I read the book.) He is also absolutely principled and honest. He agrees to take Sylvia back because that is how a gentleman behaves.

On this golfing trip, though, complications begin that are to affect the rest of his life. A member of the golfing party is General Campion, an idiotic but well-meaning man who likes Sylvia and so thinks that any problems in the marriage must be Christopher’s fault. When Christopher helps a couple of suffragettes escape from the police, the General immediately concludes that one of them, Valentine Wannop, must be Christopher’s mistress, even though Christopher has never met her before. Later on, similar misunderstandings contrive to blacken his reputation.

Egging everyone on is Sylvia, who takes a long time to understand the character of her husband. She believes he and Valentine must be lovers and even spreads the rumor that he is sharing a mistress with MacMaster. Mrs. Duchemin, whose husband is an academic with mental issues, is indeed having an affair with MacMaster, but Christopher’s only crime is to help MacMaster financially. Some of Sylvia’s ex-lovers or would-be lovers are also eager to harm him.

Christopher does fall in love with Valentine, but he doesn’t act on it because he is incapable of treating her dishonorably. With social ruin threatening him, he goes to war.

I tried out this first volume to see if I would like it after having watched the TV series. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the other three volumes. This is a great novel, about how a completely honorable but reticent man is misunderstood and dishonored by almost everyone around him.

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Day 871: The Summer Before the War

Cover for The Summer before the WarBest Book of the Week!
I, for one, have been waiting for Helen Simonson’s second novel ever since I read the first one. And here it is!

Hugh Grange is preparing to pick up the new schoolteacher from the station at the beginning of The Summer Before the War. His Aunt Agatha has been instrumental in the school board’s controversial decision to hire a woman as the school’s new Latin mistress. Agatha has supported the hire because the woman was the most qualified applicant, but she is aware that her position as well as the teacher’s is precarious and that the mayor’s wife, Bettina Fothergill, is up to something.

So, Beatrice Nash arrives to take the position unaware that it is already threatened. She has been eager to leave the home of her father’s relatives, where she has lived since her father’s death. She soon finds that he has bargained away her freedom by agreeing to put her money into trust in return for being allowed to return home to his estranged family. Beatrice’s trustees start right out by assuming that she is mishandling her money.

Hugh is a medical student who is working under Dr. Ramsey, a well-known Harley Street physician. Hugh is a careful person whose future is neatly charted out. He will qualify in a year and then marry Dr. Ramsey’s daughter and join his practice. But the Great War breaks out, and Dr. Ramsey pressures him to accompany him to the front. Hugh wants to finish qualifying first, but Lucy Ramsey threatens to give him a white feather if he doesn’t join up.

Hugh’s cousin Daniel is a poet, and he plans to open a journal in London with his good friend Craigmore, Lord North’s son. But after Lord North sees Daniel and Craigmore together at the local hops festival, he makes Craigmore join the air corps. Daniel joins the Artists’ Rifles in reaction.

link to NetgalleyThis description doesn’t do much justice to the novel, which is about how all the characters’ lives are affected by the war. Aside from the same kind of class and town politics featured in Simonson’s delightful Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, we meet a handful of characters who are genuinely likable and we get very involved in several subplots.

Simonson evokes a bustling town of Rye in 1917, with it occupants becoming involved in their various war activities. Belgian refugees arrive, and the town begins to experience the first horrors of war. This novel makes an absorbing second effort that is at times very touching.

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Day 856: A God in Every Stone

Cover for A God in Every StoneA God in Every Stone is a novel that seems to be trying to convey some profound truths. The trouble is, I couldn’t figure out what they were.

It begins in pre-World War I Turkey, where young Vivian Rose Spencer is on an archaeological dig. She is entranced by the thought of the history of artifacts, particularly by a story told her by Tahsin Bey, a friend of her father. He tells her of a circlet worn by the 5th century explorer Scylax, which he believes may be found in Peshawar, where the Persian King Darius sent him to explore the Indus. Viv’s visit is cut short by the start of the war, but by then she has promised herself to Tahsin Bey, who says he will fetch her in London after the war.

Viv begins the war nursing, but after a while she is unable to take the stress. Her mother agrees to allow her to journey to Peshawar as an archaeologist, but first she is drawn by patriotism and naiveté into a betrayal.

Qayyam Gul is a proud Pushtun soldier whose regiment is practically wiped out at Auber’s Ridge. He loses an eye, but it is his experience of being an Indian soldier in England that makes him begin rethinking his loyalties.

In Peshawar, Viv befriends a young Pathan boy, Najeeb, who becomes fascinated by the objects in the museum. She begins giving him lessons in the classics, but when his mother finds out, she makes him stop. Najeeb is Qayyam’s brother, and Qayyam accompanies Najeeb to Viv’s house to return her books. Not much later, Viv is forced to return to London.

Fourteen years later, Viv is enticed back to Peshawar by Najeeb’s letters. He is now employed by the Peshawar Museum and wants her to excavate the site that she hoped to explore years before. Qayyam has in the meantime become involved in the Congress, which wants to separate India from England. Viv arrives, but after violence has already begun.

Although I was interested in the characters and wanted to know what happened to them, I felt that Shamsie presents us with threads of different stories, all unexplored. We don’t learn very much about Qayyam’s experience at Auber’s Ridge or Viv’s nursing experiences, for example, or what’s going on in the Congress. We never find out what happened to Scylax’s circlet. It is almost a McGuffin. The best parts of the novel are her depictions of Peshawar. But even there, the readers’ experience seems fragmentary. In a dramatic portion of the end of the novel, a girl is introduced as an apparent partner for Najeeb, only to be killed within a few pages. The author’s intentions seem confused, as if she started with too many stories to tell and couldn’t decide between them.

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Day 702: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Cover for Dead WakeIn Dead Wake, Erik Larson has written another fascinating history—the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania. As he sometimes does, Larson goes after the story with a two-pronged approach: on the one hand following preparations for the voyage and the actual trip, on the other hand following the progress of the U-20, the German U-boat that sank it. In this book, the story has a third, weaker prong—the romance of President Woodrow Wilson with Edith Bolling Galt, who would become his second wife.

Even though everyone reading the book knows what will happen to the Lusitania, a passenger ship en route to England from the United States during World War I, Larson manages to create a fair amount of suspense. He tells us about a number of the passengers, and we want to know who survives, of course. I think this ability of Larson’s to create suspense even from a story where we know the outcome is quite a talent.

Aside from learning about the ship, the voyage, and the results of the attack, we also learn about things that are more surprising. In particular, Larson leads us to wonder whether the British admiralty was incompetent or whether the hope that some event like this would force the Americans into the war made them negligent. There were several actions the admiralty could have taken to keep the ship safer.

I recently read an article about the man who bought the wreckage of the Lusitania, who believes that the ship secretly carried armament meant for England. It is true that there was an unexplained second explosion after the U-boat’s torpedo hit the ship, but if the theory turns out to be correct, that makes the British admiralty’s conduct even more perplexing.

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