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Humber Boy B is an eighteen-year-old, now called Ben. Eight years earlier he and his older brother were convicted of killing another ten-year-old boy by throwing him off the Humber Bridge. Now Ben has been released and must learn to live in a world that he has never known except as a child. Because of the notoriety around the case, Ben has been given a new identity and has been sent far from his original home to live in Ipswich, where he will be under the charge of his probation officer, Cate Austin. But the mother of the victim, Noah, is horrified that he has been released and has set up a Facebook page pleading with the public for help in finding him. She says she’s not looking for revenge – she just wants to ask him the one question that was never answered – why did they kill her son?
I must admit I went into this thinking it was going to be a fairly hard-hitting look at the issues surrounding children who murder children and how they are dealt with by the justice system and by society. It turned out to be a much lighter read than that – while those issues were touched on, the book is really something of a mystery story as the events of the day of the murder are slowly revealed. Did Ben do it? If so, why? And if not, then what did happen that day? And the supplementary, thrillerish strand – will Ben’s new identity be revealed, and if so will he be at risk of a revenge attack?
I found the first part of the book a bit jarring because of my misconception about it. For example, the idea that his probation officer would get him a work placement in an aquarium is completely unrealistic (I sincerely hope!) – yeah, put the child-drowner somewhere with loads of kids and plenty of water. And the aquarium takes him on without doing Disclosure checks (a UK rule that says anyone working with children must have police checks done on them before they can be employed). But once I accepted that the book is primarily a straight mystery thriller rather than a realistic look at the justice system, I was able to put my disbelief back in its box and go along for the ride.
The present-day story is told mainly from two viewpoints – Cate’s in the third person and a first person account from Ben. Between these are short chapters taking us back to the day of the crime, and it’s through these that we are shown the events that led up to Noah’s death. We also see some of Noah’s mum’s entries on the Facebook page with the responses from friends and anonymous contributors. Dugdall’s writing style is very good and the pacing works well, giving us plenty of time to get to know Ben and feel some empathy for him, before the tension starts ratcheting up towards the end. Cate is well-depicted too – a divorced mother who cares about her clients but has a professional outlook towards them. She’s a bit of a woolly liberal in her views (a ten-year-old can’t be held responsible, etc.) but there are other characters who put the spawn-of-the-devil-lock-him-up-and-throw-away-the-key side of the case, and Dugdall smartly doesn’t try to dictate what the reader should think on these issues, leaving us somewhere in the middle, where I felt reasonably comfortable.
My one real criticism of it is that Ben’s voice doesn’t ring true, which is a pity because otherwise this is an excellent portrayal of a young offender struggling to cope with the realities of living on the outside. Ben is an unnaturally well-educated child with a too articulate voice for someone who has been in a secure unit with the worst thugs in the country for most of his life, and who comes from an extremely deprived background prior to his imprisonment. “I jolt, eyes open and nod. To the side of reception is a tank, and inside are orange and black clown fish, prettily darting between lime green plant tentacles.” It’s difficult to have a first-person narrative for a character who ought to be relatively inarticulate, and I have to wonder why authors insist on doing it. If Ben’s part of the narrative had been done as third person, prettily darting clown fish wouldn’t have been a problem.
Overall, some bits of it really need to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, with realism tossed casually overboard whenever it might interfere with the plot, but nevertheless I found the second half in particular very readable, with the tension slowly building up to a strong thrilleresque ending. And it has enough depth to make it thought-provoking without getting too bogged down in the issues it raises. I look forward to seeing where Dugdall takes us on Cate’s next outing.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Legend Press.