Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

Ruth Dugdall’s new book spins around one striking event.

A child plummets from the Humber Bridge. He is seen by a schoolteacher, who had been fishing on a day when he might have been – some would say should have been – at a union rally. He plunges into the water, in front of his stunned teenage daughter, in a desperate attempt to rescue the child. His cause is hopeless; the boy is lost.

CCTV footage and witness statement led the police to two young brothers, who had fled from the bridge as the boy fell. They were tried, convicted, and imprisoned; but of course that wasn’t the end.

This story begins eight years one, when the younger of the two brothers – who had been known to the media as Humber Boy B – was released. He was given a new identity, and he was expected to start a new life, leaving everything and everyone he had know behind.

Responsibility for the newly renamed ‘Ben’ fell to probation officer Cate Austin. That’s what made me eager to read this book, when the subject matter would usually make me wary. I read Ruth Dugdall’s two earlier novels that followed Cate’s life and work a few years ago, and I was very impressed.

Humber Boy BThe perspective is interesting, because this is a crime novel about not detection and investigation but the consequences of crime and what happens in the future to the accused and the convicted. It is clear that the author, a former probation officer, knows of what she writes; and I appreciate that Cate is utterly believable as a professional woman. She’s a a single mother,  who copes well with her teenage daughter, and her daughter’s relationship with her father, who lives nearby with his new family. And she is good at her job,  aware of the importance of the work of the probation service, and of the difference if makes.

Her own story is secondary, but it  has similarities with the case she has been assigned without that ever seeming contrived. There are many thoughtful touches like that in this book.

Ben’s is the highest profile case Cate has ever had to manage, and she is apprehensive. She is well aware that there are many who believe that he shouldn’t have a fresh start in life, that he hasn’t been punished enough, and there will be some who to find him. She knows that media coverage and social media pose a threat. She also knows that after eight years – from the age of ten to the age of eighteen – in an institution ‘Ben’ would have a lot of adjusting to do, that it would be difficult, that success was by no means guaranteed.

The story moves, quite naturally, between different perspectives in the past and in the present.

A picture of that day in the past is built up slowly, from the accounts of those who were close to events, or those who crossed paths with those involved. It’s very effective; making it clear that there was a chain of consequence, and that many lives were affected. It was clear that those should have cared and supported ‘Ben’ let him down badly; it was also clear, as his story in the present unfolded, that the system that had been supposed to rehabilitate him and prepare him for his new life had failed.

Cate did what she could, and she wanted to do more, but she was constrained by her superiors who felt that enough time and money had been spent on one undeserving young man, and by changes to the way the probation service was expected to operate.

Even though I knew what he had done, watching ‘Ben’ trying to deal with things was moving. He had no idea how to live in the new flat he had given; he didn’t know what things cost; he didn’t know how buses worked or where to go and what to do; he didn’t know how to be around people, or who he was supposed to be.

And then there were extracts from the Facebook page created by the mother of the dead boy, who wanted to find Humber Boy B. Not, she said, because she wished him harm but because she wanted to meet with him, to talk to him, to try to understand what had happened. There was another poster though – ‘Silent Friend’ – who wanted more for the bereaved mother, who seemed more than ready to act on her behalf.

All of these threads work together to move the story forward, with the question of what happened – and what would happen – always hovering.

The style is understated, the story of what has happened – what is still happening is clear, but it is never sensationalised. And though there is an obvious parallel between this story and Jamie Bulger case, there are enough differences and enough respect for this story not to feel exploitative. The understatement was very effective, because it made the tragedy, the horror, of what had happened all the clearer.. The ending was unexpected; it turned everything on its head, and it still has me thinking.

This is a book that works as a human drama, it works as a social study, while remaining a very good – and very readable – piece of crime fiction.

The Woman Before Me & The Sacrificial Man

Sometimes library books are like buses – you wait for ages for one to appear on the shelves, and when you finally spot it the sequel is there too.

That’s what happened to me with Ruth Dugdall’s first two novels: The Woman Before Me and The Sacrificial Man.

Both feature probation officer Cate Austin. It’s an interesting choice of perspective, a less usual angle, and it is clear that the author, a former probation officer, knows of what she writes. Cate copes as a single mother, whose ex lives nearby with his new family, and she works hard at a new job, fully aware of the importance, the potential consequences, of what she decides. It all rings true, and Cate is an interesting character, but Cate isn’t the main focus.

The main focus of each book is the woman whose case Cate has to evaluate.

The Woman Before Me tells the story of Rose Wilks. She is in prison, convicted of killing her friend’s infant son in a house fire not long after the death of her own child. And now Rose is eligible for parole. But before she can be released Rose has to express genuine remorse for what she has done. But she doesn’t. She can’t. Because, she says, she is innocent.

The facts seem to be indisputable, and yet it is clear from the start that Rose’s story can’t be as simple, as open and shut, as it sounds. And it isn’t.

Cate’s role is to advise whether parole should be given. The story follows her as she meets and talks with Rose, and as she investigates and interviews all of those involved. And it follows Rose as she lives her life in prison, as she thinks about her future, and as she recalls her past.

The different perspectives work together well, and as the story emerged, with a mixture of small, quiet and larger, more shocking revelation I was engaged and I was unsettled. My interpretation of the story kept changing, and I really couldn’t decide what Rose was guilty of, whether she sinned or was sinned against, what had made her the person she became.

I should have seen the final twist coming, but I didn’t. It made perfect sense.

The Woman Before Me was dark and intriguing. The style was unpolished, one or two characters underdeveloped, but it was most definitely a first novel of huge promise.

The Sacrificial Man fulfilled some of that promise. The quality of the writing was better, the story was more complex, and the themes better developed.

This time around Cate had a different role: making a sentencing recommendation.

Alice Mariani had assisted a suicide. The suicide of a man she met in an internet chatroom. The man she knew as Smith had told her that he no longer wanted to live, that he wanted to control his own death.

The structure is the same as the first book. Cate meets and talks with Alice, and makes wide-ranging enquiries. It delves into Alice’s past. And the papers that Smith left behind added another dimension.

Alice might have been a fool, she might have been deranged, she might have been damaged. She might have been all three. She wasn’t likeable but she was intriguing, and I really couldn’t work her out.

The story twists and turns, and twice along the way major revelations change everything. They are nasty, but not gratuitous, and they do enhance the plot.

I can’t say too much about the plot, but I can say that there is a lot here to think about. Just be aware that while the story is very readable, it is also dark and difficult.

The final twist is stunning.

And it leaves me thinking that I might have found another must-read series.