Review: HUMBER BOY B by Ruth Dugdall

A 10-year-old boy is thrown to his death from Hull’s Humber Bridge by two brothers who cannot be identified due to their respective ages: 14 and 1o. They are therefore known to the world as Humber Boy A and Humber Boy B. This novel centres on the release from incarceration of Humber Boy B eight years after the crime. He is now to be known under the name Ben and at 18 is on his own in the world but for a compassionate case worker.

I find this an awkward novel to review as there are things about it I liked a lot and other elements that almost made me stop reading.

First to the positive. I liked the way Dugdall has woven the story in such a way that readers can be sympathetic to Ben – and his brother – despite their heinous act but are not expected to automatically forgive and forget. This part of the book is all about the myriad shades of grey between the black and white that is often the public face of such cases.

Partly this is done through a very nuanced depiction of Ben as a character who we spend a good deal of time with. It is hard not to empathise with the young man shunted to a new city where he knows no one, has almost none of the social knowledge and skills of his peers and is sweet natured enough to be chuffed when an old lady asks him to help her make change. In flashback chapters that take us through The Day Of… we also come to understand that young Noah’s death was the result of a series of truly unfortunate events rather than a single act by an ‘evil boy’.

The other tool Dugdall uses to draw out the subtleties of the situation is the case management team looking after Ben as he is released. Cate Austin is the probation officer to whom he must report weekly but her manager, police and other experts meet regularly to discuss how best to handle the issues arising from Ben’s release. Each of these people brings their various personal and professional prejudices to the discussions and between them probably display the range of views that might exist in such a scenario. This diversity of opinion is well depicted.

The parts of the book that were less successful for me included attempts at cleverness which fell short and a thread I found utterly pointless about Cate’s long-lost sister.

The book’s structure included present-day and flashback sequences but Ben was called Ben in both which just felt awkward and actually made it more difficult to remember that the flashback sequences were flashbacks. I don’t really know what point the author was trying to achieve with this – one less name for readers to remember?

Other things felt like they’d been included to tick off a box rather than the author’s own conviction that they added to the narrative. We learn for example that several random strangers encountered the three boys on the fateful day of Noah’s death and the least culpable of these seem to be highlighted in a way that is, presumably, meant to suggest “we are all to blame” but in reality felt very forced. Not only did the joggers and the cyclist add nothing to the narrative they actually took away from the other elements of this chain such as the store owner and cinema usher whose actions had they been different would have had more chance of changing the course of events (I’m not suggesting either of those people should have behaved differently, merely that if they had the day might have had a different outcome).

There’s probably not much to say about the pointless thread involving Cate’s long-lost sister other than that it was pointless. For me that means it added nothing to our understanding of Cate as a character nor to the story being told.

But the element of the book that nearly made me stop reading was its depiction of another main character: Jessica. Or Noah’s Mum as she is known on her Facebook page Find Humber Boy B.  Fair enough she wanted answers rather than vengeance but I cannot imagine any parent in her situation failing to feel some self recrimination. I’m not suggesting Jessica was to blame for what happened, but in any situation I have ever known of where a death has been unexpected – accident or suicide or even murder – those closest to the victim have wondered what they could have done differently. Some people are brought completely undone by the ‘if onlys’ whereas Jessica appears completely untouched by them. She also seems remarkably obtuse when it comes to guessing the identity of Silent Friend, the frequent commenter to the Facebook page whose words become increasingly menacing.  I suppose it just boils down to the fact that the character of Jessica did not ring true for me, in stark contrast to the quite beautiful depiction of Ben.

Ultimately I think HUMBER BOY B is a decent enough book but missed a very real opportunity to be a great one. There are unnecessary elements taking space from forever unfinished ones: we never get a decent explanation for Ben’s brother’s relative innocence for example. And some of the characters are more two dimensional than ought to be the case. If I thought you were only ever going to read one book tackling the question of children who commit unspeakable crimes I’d recommend Jane Jago’s THE WRONG HAND over this one.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Penny McDonald
Publisher Oakhill Publishing 2016
Length 9 hours 18 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #3 in the Cate Austin series
Source of review copy I bought it

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6 Responses to Review: HUMBER BOY B by Ruth Dugdall

  1. I don’t think I have ever read a novel about children or early teenagers committing crimes, partly because I have never come across any and also because I’d probably think twice before reading one. That said, there appears to be quite a few elements and complexities in this novel. It’s also interesting that a probation officer is the protagonist in this series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I learned after finishing the book the Ruth Dugdall has worked in the social services system so I guess she is using that knowledge to bring a fresh perspective to her stories. And that aspect of the novel did work well.

      I don’t know that books involving children who commit crimes would be top of my reading list either but I am always interested in books which explore the “why” part of crime in a thoughtful way.


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Thanks, Bernadette, for the thoughtful review and, of course, your candor. I know exactly what you mean by a character who doesn’t ring true. That’s enough to pull a reader right out of a book. And Jessica isn’t just, say, a minor character who walked by on the day of the tragedy. She matters, and if you don’t believe her character, it’s hard to stay engaged in the book. Still, I’m glad you enjoyed parts of the book as well as you did.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rkottery says:

    “in any situation I have ever known of where a death has been unexpected – accident or suicide or even murder – those closest to the victim have wondered what they could have done differently” -this rings true to me and I certainly would find it hard to believe in the parent of a murdered child not being haunted by ‘what ifs’ and ‘I should’ve’s’.
    A balanced and interesting review, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jennifer says:

    I found this book challenging. I’m going to look out for Ruth Dugdall’s other books.

    Liked by 1 person

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