Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

humber boy bWhen a child kills a child…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer

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.

Ruth Dugdall
Ruth Dugdall

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

50 thoughts on “Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

  1. What is it with Facebook? Facebook should never be in a book. N e v e r. 😀

    I was just thinking how much better the book would be even so if some of those details had a place in the story line.

    • When I rule the world, there will be no Facebook. People will just have to go back to having friends that they actually know!

      It was good once I’d stopped trying to think of it as serious. But I’m probably being too hard on it, ‘cos I worked in the field of young offenders myself. And believe me, none of them ever mentioned ‘prettily darting clown fish’… 😉

      • Right . My grown children, who generally use FB to communicate because I do not have unlimited minutes and my Portuguese friends are what keep me from pitching it. FB, that is.

        • I have a profile but only so I can get in if I want to follow a link or something – roughly every couple of months. And every time I go in several complete strangers are just desperate to be my friend! Hate it! Mind you, I have loads of ‘friends’ on Goodreads and Twitter too that I’ve never communicated with in any way. Maybe that’s the best way to stay friends… 😉

          • One of the delightful things I learned from the Portuguese is a to maintain a little reserve among friends. The friendships I made in Portugal…many of them are still intact in spite of the years behind us.

            Over here, it is often expected that one becomes intimate friends on the first or second meeting. Or maybe it is just me.

      • FictionFan, you have just won my vote for Ruler of The World, on your ban Facetwit campaign (I hope you don’t mind, I’ve broadened your remit to include the other as well. Clearly not a book for me, but I’m delighted to see your manifesto . Stay in Europe, and a cap on the numbers of strangers whom you have never even exchanged a ‘I like your post’ wanting to become your friend. I’m AMAZED by the people I’ve never heard of, doing activities I have absolutely no connection with whatsoever, who apparently want to connect with me on LinkedIn – which i don’t do either! Clearly, there are bots which trawl for websites and lead to plaintive ‘be my friend’ approaches. Maybe you’ll not feel so abandoned if you know George Clooney hasn’t asked to connect with me either………..not on the LinkedIn I don’t do, never tweeted me on the twit account I don’t have, or popped his face over the book I’m reading. Not even a good old fashioned hand written letter, delivered by the postman-is-a-dying-breed, either. He’s clearly far do busy drinking coffee………………

        • Thank you very much! Under my new regime you will be Minister for Arts and Colour Co-Ordination. I nearly gave you the Ministry of Chocolate portfolio, but realised in time you would probably ban Dairy Milk… phew!

          Haha! After I said that, it occurred to me that there might be something to be said for invisible “friends” though. Most of my Goodreads and Twitter “friends” may never have talked to me, but that might be preferable to the bloggy “friends” who get bored with me and disappear! They may not entertain me, but they don’t slap me in the face with a prettily darting metaphorical clown fish either! I may start up a special Facebook account, make 20,000 “friends” and we can all ignore each other happily for eternity… and if I write to George assuring him that I’ll never even ‘like’ him much less want to actually, heaven forbid, talk to him, maybe he’ll be my “friend” too…

  2. Hmm. I think I see what you mean about Ben’s voice. That would distract me. Though the subject matter is provocative, I think I’ll pass on this one. When I visited my parents a few months ago, a guy was convicted of a murder he committed when he was a child. That was so heinous, reading this book would probably only frustrate me.

    • Yes, I’m afraid I’ve never heard an 18-year-old boy who speaks like that, much less one with such a deprived background. I was glad she showed both sides of the ‘can a 10-year-old be held responsible for his actions’ debate – I thought at first she was going to take the line that we should feel sorry for them. Every case and every child is different, of course, but I’ve known plenty of 10-year-olds who knew exactly what they were doing when they were hurting other kids.

  3. I’ve been wondering about this one, FictionFan. I know exactly what you mean about feeling jarred by the difference between your expectations and what’s in the book. Still, it sounds as though it’s a good read for what it is, if I can put it that way. That said though, I do prefer books to be realistic in certain ways. Seriously? Permission to work with children near water? Hmmm….. I suppose I’m just not that skilled at giving my disbelief to go out and play.

    • Partly misleading blurb syndrome again in this case, I think – they make a big play of Ruth Dugdall having been a Probation Officer in real life, which led me to expect more realism. Mind you, one of the most violent boys I worked with was once offered a work placement in a forestry, to which my reaction was ‘Yeah that’s what he most needs – access to chainsaws!’ 😉

      • Seriously? Access to forestry tools? Oooh-kay… As to the book, I think you have a good point about misleading blurb syndrome. If nothing else, blurbs ought to be acurate.

        • I think they thought it would be good healthy outdoor work – I had my doubts! 😉 Yes, in this case it took me a good third of the book to adjust to the tone because I was expecting something different.

  4. Oooh, I got a shudder of the Jamie Bolger murder when I started reading this review. A very, very interesting subject matter (to me, any way) but the voice of Ben does sound off-putting. I have met some incredibly eloquent violent criminals but they haven’t usually been locked up since childhood. It makes you wonder how he came by such a vocabulary, unless he took a massive interest in literature whilst inside. I would be more interested in this book if it focused more on the psychology of a killer-child-turned-free-man, I think. Very interesting review, though, most thought provoking.

    • Yes, it kinda starts off like the Bulger case and then veers away from it. It is good – I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it, but just not as hard-hitting as I was expecting. If you can ignore Ben’s voice, it really does give an excellent picture of what life might be like for a kid coming out of secure unit with no family to support him. I did also feel that she could have done his voice as first person but past tense so we could assume he’d acquired his vocabulary later, but I’ve never heard an 18-year-old boy speak like that whatever his background. She threw in a bit towards the end to the effect that he’d read and studied a lot in the secure unit, but I suspected that might have been as a response to an editor making the same point as me…

      • Ah, I did wonder if there might have been some sort of reference to some sort of studying. I think I could over-look Ben’s unlikely vocabulary (and the highly unlikely incident of him getting that job in the first place – imagine that!) out of interest for the rest of the story. I think you might have sold me on this, FF.

  5. Very interesting point on Ben’s voice and how third person would have eliminated the credibility issue. The plot holes, however, sound egregious. Work placement in an aquarium?!

    • It’s the current obsession with first person present tense voices – they work fine when they’re appropriate but jar badly when they’re not. I know – I actually laughed at that point and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to. But, I was just saying to Margot that one of the most violent boys I worked with was once offered a work placement in a forestry, thus giving him access to chainsaws! So maybe it’s not as unbelievable as I think… 😉

  6. Sounds like an interesting read, FF. Normally, I’m not too fond of child-killings (or dog killings!), but as long as we don’t have to revisit all the gory details, this one might work. I agree totally with Ben’s first person voice, though. Typical 18-year-olds just don’t sound like that — great point!!

    • There’s a real trend for books about child-killing at the moment, and I was thinking when I finished this that I feel as if I’ve read enough of them now. This one wasn’t gory but it was quite upsetting in parts, though the lack of realism stopped it getting too tough to take. Yeah, when I worked with behaviourally challenged boys, I’d have paid £100 out of my own pocket to get one of them to say ‘prettily darting clown fish’. It’d have been more like “Look at they ******* fish! They’re ******* brilliant, by the way! Can you eat them?” 😉

  7. I’m planning to read this one at some point, because it does have an interesting premise (although I wonder if, like you, I’m expecting something slightly different). I read a very interesting article at some point about how Norway deals with child criminals and how they work hard to reintegrate them into society, organise meetings with the victim’s family etc. It sounded like a completely different world to the UK – almost unbelievable.

    • I definitely think it’s worth reading – I enjoyed it quite a lot once I got over my surprise. I think it’s because they say in the blurb about the author having been a Probation Officer that made me expect it to be more based on realism. But as a mystery thriller it’s good. The Scottish system is different to the English one – children don’t really go through the court system in the same way. But they still end up in secure units and then are released into the wild without adequate support. No wonder they re-offend…

  8. Doesn’t really appeal to me, and I very much agree about the too-articulate narrative voice. Where is this secure unit that produces articulate, well-educated, even poetic alumni, and can I get some of my young offenders into it? It seems to be doing a better job than most of the state schools round here!

    • I know – I wish! I doubt if even Eton produces 18-year-old boys who would use the phrase ‘prettily darting’ though. But he also seemed to have managed to lose his Hull accent and acquired a nice RP one instead. Miraculous! The English system must be so much better than ours… 😉

  9. As always a brilliant review and I’m so relieved you didn’t hate this one!! Like you I enjoyed the fact that the author left the reader to decide where on the spectrum we ended up in relation to the crime committed and I did have a bit of a “really?” moment around the work placement too…

    • Haha! I know – it’s always a worry when someone actually reads a book you’ve recommended! But yes, apart from the occasional ‘Uh?’ moment, I thought this was a really good read. And while I could see that the ending might be divisive, I rather liked it…

  10. I don’t know how the story comes out; you have done a good job obscuring that. But in general, I simply do not like stories about mentally or psychologically warped killers. Now, one could say that anyone who murders is depraved (there was a fellow student in law school who in a discussion of insanity defenses, said that all murderers were by definition insane, which evoked laughter from the rest of the class, though I understood the point he was trying to make), but even so, I like murder mysteries or suspense thrillers with “understandable” motives. I know that the Golden Age mysteries just made a parlor game out of murder, with no real sense of the awful consequences and pain involved; but they were fun and intelliectually stimulating. But there now seem to be too many stories altogether involving serial killers, pedophiles, psychopaths of all types.

    I know that some people love true crime stories, but I never wanted to “study” the mind of a mentally ill or completely soulless person. Give me some kind of “legitimate” motive for an adult: jealousy, revenge, rivalry; and for me the story might have an interesting storyline. For some reason, as you say, there are a plethora of books about terrifyingly twisted child murderers. Maybe it is easier to do that than to come up with complex motivations or mystery clues.

    • Haha! I must say I’ve often thought myself that murder must surely be one definition of insanity. Don’t know myself whether ending up in a hospital for the criminally insane would be much more fun than a prison though. (I’m hoping I never find out!)

      Yes, I agree – I actually wrote a little PS to this review, which I then deleted, basically saying, please, authors, could we get away from child-murders for a bit, even if it means we have to go back to torturing beautiful young women. Marginally less distasteful! I suppose it’s the current style of sensation writing, but I’d rather have a nice country house mystery with clues and suchlike myself. And greed or jealousy as a motive is much more fun than psychopathic killing sprees. I still stick with the crime genre, and there are some authors I still enjoy a lot, but on the whole I feel it’s drifted too far into gruesome gore or ‘issues’-based territory – for me. However they seem to sell in their zillions and presumably the publishers know what the market wants…

      I also quite enjoy the occasional true crime story but again usually where there’s a mystery and a motive, rather than the mind of a serial killer type of thing. It all seems a bit unhealthy to me, but I guess that might be because I look on crime fiction as entertainment, first and foremost, and I don’t find child murders or graphic gorefests entertaining. Whereas a mysterious body in the library will get me every time…

  11. I’ve never tried to write such a story, and I’m certainly not saying that I could; but it does seem that it would be a lot easier to write a suspense story involving an insane killer, than a classic mystery tale. Because the difficult part of the mystery is that you have to come up with a complex or baffling motive, lots of hidden clues, a murderer who is clever and perhaps elliptical. For the insane killer type of story, you can get away with inconsistencies, because after all you are dealing with someone who is insane, who makes connections which only exist in his mind. So you describe some grisly murders; you have a character (maybe he is the actual first-person narrator) who is terribly warped; and it just plays out. This one perhaps seems more complex than that, as (I am hoping) maybe the boy did not commit the murder, and someone framed him. But there are many of the conventional insane killer kind.

    I don’t think that it is unreasonable to suggest that part of the enjoyment of a really good classic mystery is that the reader can in some sense imagine that he or she might be tempted to murder someone for the same motives. Now of course we would not; we have moral compunction and empathy which the sociopath does not have. But their motivations are not so far removed from those passions which are fairly commonly human; whereas the serial killer who is missing a chromosome somewhere is more a figure of repulsive terror than someone with somewhat graspable motivations who crosses a line that the vast majority of us would never choose to cross.

    • Yes, I suspect you’re right about it being easier to plot. I’m always surprised at the number of authors who say they just start writing without really knowing how it will end – explains why sometimes the plot is full of holes! In this one, I felt whenever she hit a problem between plot and realism, she just ditched realism – fine as an entertainment, but the blurb definitely suggests that there’s more to it than that.

      Like most people I was intrigued by the serial killer type novel when it was a new thing, but it’s been done so often now there’s nothing to add, so they tend to get gorier and more graphic just to have a point of difference. And the new trend for child murders isn’t one I enjoy in general, though I admit there have been a few good books. But really I’m not looking to have either my stomach or my conscience churned when I read a crime novel – I read plenty of factual stuff that lets me know how horrible humanity can be, and I watch the news. But crime fiction seems to be being used as a medium for looking at problems in society in a way it never used to be. And it does seem to be popular…

  12. Hmmm. Yes, I agree, Ben’s voice does not sound authentic. In any case, I’m not sure I’m motivated to read about children killing children (in any sort of realistic novel) right now. Perhaps sometime down the road.

    • Yes, the child-killing trend is one I would happily see an end of. I’ve actually started saying no to books with that as a strand now, even though some of them have been well done. I never thought I’d see the day when I was longing to go back to torturing women as less distasteful! I think I’m losing touch with crime fiction…

    • Yes, all is revealed in the end. I found the ending quite good though I did need to suspend my disbelief a bit. But it was well enough written to carry it off, I thought – definitely worth reading!

  13. I’m also planning on reading this – I don’t know if I’ll enjoy the book, but I certainly enjoyed your review! You can be so acidicly funny – but you’re right re Disclosure checks (in Scotland they’re now PVG checks – Protection of Vulnerable Groups; why keep changing the names of things??!) and the aquarium thing….I’ll bear these things in mind so I don’t get too irate reading it myself!

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