A moody British crime tragedy, Ruth Dugdall’s Humber Boy B (Legend Press) looks into the makings of a crime that many of us consider unfathomable: the murder of a child at the hands of another child.
We’re told the story through several points of view: foremost is that of Cate Austin, a Suffolk probation officer assigned the case of Ben, who has just been released from juvenile prison for the killing of a ten-year-old friend named Noah, who died falling off a bridge over the Humber River. To Cate’s colleagues, Ben is an exemplar of pure evil, but Cate isn’t so quick to rush to judgment. Now 18, “Ben” has been given a new identify and an apartment to build a new life, but his inexperience after eight years of incarceration and ten years of neglectful parenting by an alcoholic mother and an absentee father leave him ill-equipped to handle life outside. Emotionally, he’s still a ten-year-old boy, but is he also a ten-year-old killer inside?
Complicating matters, the dead child’s mother, Jessica, has set up a Facebook page devoted to tracking down Ben, a page which has attracted the attention of a dangerous Silent Friend, who themselves seems to have some knowledge of what happened the day of Noah’s death. Humber Boy B opens with a third person account of “The Day Of,” followed by the first Facebook posting, then moves into the story told from Cate’s perspective, and switches to a first person present day account by Ben of his new life. Dugdall maintains this storytelling structure through the book, introducing us to other players from that fatal day along the way: Ben’s older half-brother Adam who is also on the bridge, schoolteacher Roger Palmer and his teen-aged daughter Cheryl, the two brothers’ depressive mother, plus other adults who had contact with all three of the young boys involved. As she strives to make sense of the killing and uncover Silent Friend’s identity, Cate uses Olivier Massard, a Luxembourg police detective on loan to the Suffolk p.d., as her sounding board. Professionally dispassionate, Massard provides a smart contrast to her empathetic eye – and we can also see an attraction between the two developing.
Dugdall follows her characters with the same unblinkingly empathetic eye as her heroine, and she never lets any of her characters off the hook. As we learn the circumstances that led to the young boy’s death, we’re ever aware of the severity of the crime and the way that it is still felt eight years later. Once we head to an inevitable final confrontation at the scene of the crime, we realize no one has been unaffected by that awful day.
Both thriller and complex character study, Humber Boy B proves a compelling antidote to the Evil Child scenario of Hollywood thrillers and novels like The Bad Seed. Compelling reading for those as invested in the “why-” as much as they are the “whodunnit.”