Humber Boy B (April 1, 2015) by Ruth Dugdall

Humber Boy BHumber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick preface: I loved Ruth Dugdall’s first two novels published by Legend Press: The Woman Before Me, and The Sacrificial Man.
These novels feature probation officer Cate Austin, whose perceptions of guilt, evil, and the motivations behind criminal behavior are challenged as she takes on what she expects to be routine cases. Dugdall, like her main character, worked as a probation officer for many years, and now volunteers within the prison system in Luxemburg. Dugdall’s experiences lend authenticity to these first two narratives, and her characters are complex and emotionally compelling.
That said, when I received an arc of Humber Boy B from the publisher through NetGalley (big thanks!) I had extra high hopes for this novel.
Humber Boy B started out with an interesting premise. Eight years ago, two brothers were involved in the murder of their 10-year-old friend, Noah. In the present, the younger brother, now known as Humber Boy B by the media, and as Ben by the justice officials working with him, is being released from prison.
The hook is that Ben was convicted of murder at 10 years old, branded a child killer, and labeled evil. His crime, like others which Dugdall has written about, is one which society finds difficult to comprehend.
Cate Austin is the probation officer in charge of Ben’s case as he attempts to reintegrate into society. As the story begins, Cate (and the reader) wonders, what really happened on the day that Noah fell to his death from Humber Bridge? Why did Ben do it? And what’s going to happen now that Ben has legally served his sentence? Although the justice system says he has served his time, the people directly affected by Noah’s death may not be so willing to let Ben move on.
I was intrigued by the first few chapters of Humber Boy B. However, as the story went on, it failed to develop in a satisfying way. I’ve thought a lot about why Humber Boy B didn’t work for me.
Here are some of the main reasons:
First, the grammar and sentence structure were poor to the point that they became a barrier to my engagement with the story. I read a digital copy of the novel prior to its publication date of April 1, 2015. However, there was nothing I could find on the arc that described it as an uncorrected proof. Furthermore, the writing grew noticeably poorer as the novel went on, such that I wondered if Dugdall had been extremely rushed to finish the novel, or whether there had not been time to properly edit the entire thing.
I was also, unfortunately, disappointed with the development of the characters and plot. In an afterward to the novel, Dugdall writes that like her main character Cate Austin, she has wondered about the reasons that children commit murder. Dugdall states that she has “taken inspiration from the young men I met” while working with real-life offenders.
I admire and share Dugdall’s desire to comprehend this seemingly incomprehensible crime. However, I think her comments are telling, because ultimately, the character of Ben seemed like a mishmash of multiple people. His personality and motivations were never explained in a coherent or convincing manner. Humber Boy B offered various ideas about what contributes to this kind of tragedy, but it did not succeed in creating a particular, believable character. It seemed to me that ultimately, Dugdall was unable to answer her own question, so, as a reader, I felt let down.
Perhaps because of this, I felt that there was at times a preachy tone when Dugdall (through her characters) talked about who was really to blame, or who deserved the most sympathy, in tragedies of this kind. And finally, I felt uncomfortable with the relationship that begins to develop between Cate and Olivier, a detective who joins the case from Luxemburg. Cate struggles with her strong attraction to Olivier, despite the fact that he treats her in what she perceives as a sexist manner.
So, that’s my rather long, but honest, response to Humber Boy B. This novel didn’t work for me, but I would definitely recommend The Woman Before Me to anyone interested in reading Ruth Dugdall for the first time.

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