Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Woman Before Me

The Woman Before Me

We are all just one event away from the loss of love, of the status quo, of the illusory balance of our lives. And this is terrifying and liberating. – Ruth Dugdall, ‘Why I Write’

There are many people in prison who maintain their innocence: for some that’s just what they’ve been told to say no matter what evidence is put in front of them; others truly believe in their innocence – they may acknowledge that they have committed some offence according to the laws of the land but they believe they are answerable to a higher power, if not God then at least their own conscience and there are those who because of some miscarriage of justice find themselves incarcerated for a crime they did not commit.

But let’s ask you a question: Who of us is truly innocent?

The police have been known in the past to fit somebody up, to plant evidence, to ensure that someone they regard as a criminal is convicted of something; if they can’t pin a specific crime on that person then as long as they get them for something then their consciences will let them sleep at night; as far as they’re concerned, the universal balance will have been restored.

Rose Wilks has been sentenced to eight years imprisonment for the accidental manslaughter of a baby boy, Luke. She has, from the very beginning, maintained her innocence and has continued to do so. She is now almost four years through her sentence and her parole hearing is due. In fact it’s only a mere six weeks away. So what are her chances of being released early? On the surface one would think she has a better-than-average chance: she’s been a model prisoner, is trusted by the prison officers and is generally dubbed up with new inmates to help them acclimatise.

The catch is there is really only one criterion that the parole board is interested in: remorse. Everything else that might concern then is powered by demonstrable proof of that single emotion. But is a woman who has constantly maintained that she was innocent of the crime for which she has been convicted capable of showing genuine remorse? She accepts that she is guilty of some fairly minor offences but nothing that would have involved her being locked up for any length of time.

A number of people’s opinions get considered: Jason Clarke, her partner, who even though he never loved her (something she was aware of when at liberty), has stood by her; Emma and Dominic Hatcher, the parents of the child who died; the staff who have had her in their charge for the past four years and, most importantly, the parole office, Cate Austin, a new ‘Care Bear’ as the staff refer to her position.

Cate and Rose have a number of things in common apart from their gender: for starters both have been mothers (Rose lost her son Joel while he was in Intensive Care, Cate has a young daughter), but neither has had a man for the past four years and both of them have wound up in prison because of things that went on in their pasts.

Six weeks as I’ve said is all Cate has to make her determination. And Rose knows it. The Rose Wilks that Cate meets in prison is not the same Rose Wilks that was convicted though. After four years of having to survive as a nonce, a term used for those convicted of offences against children, and (mis)treated accordingly she’s learned how to play the system and she has her own agenda. Yes, she wants to be free. But that’s not all.

The Woman Before Me begins, as many books of this ilk do, with a flashback to the night of the murder:

Creeping across the threshold, I listen to the silence of the sleeping house. These middle hours between three and four in the morning when the deepest sleep can be reached, make the kitchen seem larger and emptier than in daylight. Different. Although the difference is me. This time I’m saying goodbye.

The fragrance of Emma is everywhere, the delicate tang of her green apple perfume. That small wooden box, holding an assortment of tea bags, on the shelf – I’ll never see her bend over it, her hair falling like a veil, sweeping it away as she dithers over her selection. And Luke. She told me I’ll never see him again.


Through the kitchen into the large dining room, I move slowly. I don’t want to miss a thing. I want to capture the memory of it. That is where we’ve sat, Emma and I, cradling hot cups of tea. I notice the red paint on the walls, the white pine of the window seat. On the table is a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes, a box of matches. She’s supposed to have given up, but today has been a hard day.


I climb quietly up the stairs, avoiding the places I know would groan under my weight. Night-lights illuminate the hall, making me blink. Emma’s door is ajar and I can see into the bedroom. Her curtains are open and the moon is full.

Emma sleeps facing the window, the duvet pulled high on her face. Next to her is the bulk of a man, hidden under the bedding, Dominic. Entering their room, I creep up to her foetal shape … and wonder if I could touch her without her waking. Only inches separate me from her sleeping body.


Leaving Emma I walk further along the hall to the nursery, snaking behind the half-closed door. Inside the small room is the beautiful baby boy, asleep in his cot. … Usually I just watch him sleep, but tonight that isn’t enough.

He’s familiar with my touch and smell. He stirs when I lift him and I think I hear a voice in the next room. I pause but hear nothing. His weight is natural to me, I cradle him expertly, one arm along his body, my hand on his thigh…

I love him, love him fiercely.

I hear something in the next room: I freeze, waiting and the noise becomes louder. Low whispers and then moaning. The repetitive sound of the bed banging against the wall. Careful not to wake Luke, I place him back in his cot and make my way from his room, passing the bedroom where Emma’s moans are getting louder, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Silk Cut So the scene has been set. This is the night of the fire. This is the night Luke dies. The cause of the fire is ascertained to have been a lit cigarette. But who lit it? Rose is also a smoker and Silk Cut is her brand of choice. In the morning the police arrest her, question her and based on what she admits to they charge her but she refuses to admit to lighting a cigarette in the house:

“Did you light a cigarette?”

“No! I would never smoke around him.”

“Did you drop a cigarette as you left, starting a fire in the house?”


“I will ask you again; did you light a cigarette in the Hatcher’s home?”

“No, I did not.”

“A cigarette started that fire and you admit to being there, in the early hours of the morning.”

“But Emma smokes! It would have been hers. She was awake when I left. She was having sex with her husband.”

Sergeant West looks at me with undisguised contempt. “Mrs Hatcher was alone last night. Her husband was sleeping elsewhere.”

Eh? Okay, so who is the man sharing Emma’s bed? I’m not saying but what I will say is that we find out quite early in the book but it doesn’t answer the real burning question here: who is responsible for starting the fire? What is interesting is that Rose doesn’t make more about the presence of this other man when it comes to her trial. Her reason? She has worked out who it is and decided not to involve him. But why? Why be willing to go to prison for a crime she maintains she didn’t commit? Because we’re all guilty of something, that’s why. She’s tried herself and found out that she is wanting.

The Woman Before Me won the Luke Bitmead Novel Award and the CWA Debut Dagger Award and so I can’t sit here and say it’s a bad novel because it clearly isn’t. It is, however, what it is. It just does it quite well. It’s formulaic, yes, but some formulae are more interesting than others: M + S = G is boring (where M = man, S = smoking gun and G = guilty) but that’s where the great crime writers distinguish themselves. The question here is: Does Ruth Dugdall manage that?

The book is 288 pages long divided into 57 chapters averaging 5 pages each. The first four chapters are headed BEFORE; the rest, NOW. The BEFORE section is written in the first person by Rose. The NOW section comprises of ‘Black Book’ entries by Rose in which she tells her life story addressing Jason. Interspersed between these entries, we see Cate’s story unfold, told in the third person. I found Cate the most predictable character here. It’s a common ploy of crime novelists to have a fair degree of overlap between protagonist and antagonist and I never truly engaged with her. She does her job, metaphorically and literally. This is where the editing was a bit sloppy. Not all the ‘Black Book Entry’ chapters are indicated; also the chapter numbers get mixed up 21, 23, 24, 22, 25 – I don’t know if the number are just wrong or if chapter 22 is printed in the wrong place but it doesn’t muck up the overall story since chapters 22 and 25 are both part of Cate’s storyline.

What we do start to realise as we read through Rose’s black book is that a lot has gone on in her life that might explain if not exactly excuse her creeping into a friend’s house in the middle of the night. A few facts:

I was brought up in Suffolk, in a seaside town where my family owned a shop. Lowestoft had seen better days and the once-grand town houses along the front were now split into flats and lived in by single mums and teenagers on benefit. There were four of us: me, my mum and dad, and Peter. He was two years older than me, a beast of a boy with piggy eyes in a pale podgy face and a brain the size of a pea. He had my mother’s pale colouring but none of her delicacy. He used to bully me endlessly, as older brothers do, but Mum said I had to make allowances because Peter was ‘special’, meaning he was stupid.

Elaeagnus_angustifolia Her mum suffers from what her father calls ‘loony spells’, bouts of depression that make her take to her bed for days on end; her father looks for comfort in the arms of Mrs Carron, “a flouncy woman with musky perfume and pink lips” according to Rose. On her ‘loony’ days, not wanting to be stuck in the shop getting under her father’s feet, she would sneak into her mother’s room “snuggling under the duvet and play at dens.” Outside in the Elaeagnus tree a blackbird has made its nest. It becomes the focus of both their interests:

“My chick,” she says, stroking my arm, “my Rosie.”


“I wish,” she said, and I held my breath, not having known her to wish for anything, so knowing it was important. “I wish I could look in that nest.” She surprised me. “Climb up, into the Elaeagnus – no, fly up there like a bird and peer in to see how many chicks, how many preciously thin, hollowed-boned babies are waiting, mouths wide for food.”

So there, there’s the first variable in this complex equation. But it’s only the start. In time her mum dies and Rose gets sent to stay with her Auntie Rita who drags her to her regular séances where Rose starts to gain a broader appreciation of just what exactly death is and isn’t. Then Jason comes on the scene and a warning from her dead mother that things will end badly if she doesn’t give him up. But what do the dead know? Just as Rose comes with baggage so does Jason, an ex he can’t quite get over but Rose is content to work around that until he decides he isn’t being fair to her and wants to leave. Then she plays her ace.

Like all books of this ilk it’s easy to look back and see where all the clues are and think this is bad writing because they’re so obvious but the fact is that when I was reading this I didn’t know what was coming. Who the man in Emma’s bed turns out to be was no big surprise but that’s misdirection on the author’s part – here, here’s a clue to keep you happy. And, yes, it is a clue but it’s not the evidence we need to help us decide if Cate’s assessment of Rose will be fair.

One thing I should make clear: Cate is not reinvestigating the case. Despite Rose’s assertions that she is innocent of the crime for which she has been convicted Cate is proceeding from the premise that the jury got it right, that is was guilty of accidental manslaughter. Her guilt is not an issue. Her suitability for reintegration into society is. Only we, the readers, get to read Rose’s black book until the very last chapter when Rose hands it to Cate. Is this as she’s walking out of the gate? I’m not saying. Does Cate recommend her release? I’m not saying. And I’m not saying what Jason and Emma and Dominic have to say or why Emma comes to the prison and waits for Cate. No, I’m not telling you.

What I will tell you is that Rose is guilty. She is guilty of a long list of things. She is guilty of loving people and believing people and trusting people. She is guilty of trespass and voyeurism. She is guilty of withholding the truth, even out-and-out lying. She is guilty of taking advantage of people, of manipulation too. She is guilty of stalking. But did she deserve to spend four years in prison and does she deserve to be released? You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out but be warned, like all crime novels, don’t be sidetracked by easy answers that come your way throughout the book. The real answer doesn’t come until page 286 so, if you’re in the habit of reading the last chapter to find out whodunit – don’t!


ruth.dugdall From the East Anglian Daily Times:

Ruth was born in 1971 and spent her early life in the Hull area, before moving to Ipswich when she was seven and her dad got a job down here. She went to Chantry High School and read voraciously – invariably darker material. “Books were always a place where you could fit in - create your own little world.”

After A-levels at Westbourne School she read English and theatre studies at Warwick University. A visit to prison – not as an inmate, obviously! – convinced her she wanted to work in jails after graduation, using drama therapy and suchlike to help offenders.

Ruth got a job with an Ipswich-based charity that helped people get their lives running better. Then, aiming to work in prisons and use drama and writing, she did an MA in social work at the University of East Anglia. She qualified in 1996 and worked in Lowestoft:

I loved being a probation officer. They get a really bad press, but I think they do a great job. People generally have the totally wrong idea about what they do. They think they're there to befriend offenders and give them cups of tea and sympathy; actually, it's all about challenging them and getting them to accept what they've done and think about the victim.

When the Carlford Unit opened in 2000 at Hollesley, near Woodbridge, she actively sought to work there. The prison takes some of the most serious young offenders in the country. Not an obvious choice for a place of work, you'd think:

I've always sought out situations that I want to know about, and maybe that frighten me as well. I think that's why I became a probation officer. If somebody says something that is shocking, I want to know more! I think this is important for writers and artists: I will ask that question other people won't ask.

Ruth wrote short stories, often drawing on work-related experiences. At the turn of the millennium –working in Lowestoft and living in Halesworth – she took a writing night-class in Bungay. The first story she wrote was from point of view of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in England.


James Version [Her first novel] The James Version … won a competition at the Winchester Writers' Festival. Ruth didn't intend to self-publish, but as the prize was 50 bound copies it seemed logical to pay for extra ones and sell them.

Wise move. Outlets such as Waterstones, Ottakers and even WH Smith took it, thanks to its local flavour, and 700-plus books were sold. Ruth returned to social work – not back to a prison environment this time but, instead, training student probation officers.


Ruth Dugdall is a committed writer - committed with a capital C. She aims to write every day – squeezing in three hours last night, for instance, when the children were in bed. Weekends, birthdays, even Christmas Day . . . none of them an excuse for work not to be done:

I am a writer who writes every day. I always have a notepad with me, whatever bag I've got. If I'm in Caffè Nero, and notice someone, or overhear something, you can pull the pad out. Someone was telling me the other day how her mum was obsessive with the rug, and combed the fringes. I thought, God, that's good! Use that . . .

Ruth – unusually – has two publishers. The Woman Before Me is published by Legend Press. At the same time she also struck a deal with Solidus Press who are bringing out her third book, The Sacrificial Man, this year too; they have also reissued The James Version. She is married to Andrew, a human resources director with the online retailer, with whom she has a daughter, Amber, and a son, Eden. She is currently working on her fifth book.

Let me leave you with an interview with her:

Since I completed this review Ruth tells me that the book has been nominated for the People's Book Award - the only literary award that is decided solely on public vote. If you'd like to vote for her then here is a link to the appropriate web page.


Elisabeth said...

I love the sound of this book, Jim, despite your small reservations.

I enjoyed the excerpts you include here and the interview wit Ruth D.

I shall check out her blog. Her fifth novel she describes as a revenge story and although she is clearly a fiction writer and crime writer of sorts - not my preferred genre at all - I relish the way she talks about writing and I love the way she writes.

So thanks so much, Jim, for another terrific review and for this introduction to an accessible and down to earth writer.

Jim Murdoch said...

People can get hung up on genre, Lis. I remember when William McIlvanney published Laidlaw in the seventies people were up in arms at this respected literary novelist writing a detective novel. The thing is it was a literary detective novel and it really wasn’t until my third reading of the book a couple of years ago that I started to realise why it was such an important book at the time. Where McIlvanney’s book differed from what had preceded it was that it wasn’t a whodunit – we know from page one who the guilty party is – it was a whydunnit and that’s far more interesting. The Woman Before Me is interesting because Rose has been found guilty. Guilt is far easier to determine than remorse. The book is structured like a crime novel but that’s just the container Dugdall uses to examine bigger issues. These issues could easily have been explored in a completely different setting but people will read this book because it’s a ‘crime’ novel that wouldn’t pick it up under other circumstances.

Kass said...

Quite a gripping review. I feel just as guilty of all the things on your long list. And this is a prison inandofitself.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm just glad to see your name back in my comments, Kass. I was getting a little bit concerned there.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I enjoyed your review, but now I have to rush out, buy the book, and quickly read to page 286 to find out who did it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad the book appeals to you, Jane. I always think it's interesting when an author manages to take a format that we think we know so well and manages to add a new dimension to it. I've just actually received a nice 'thank you' from Ruth part of which I'd like to quote:

I struggled with the label 'crime writer' for a few years, as I was disillusioned with novels which seemed to want to `solve` crimes and leave the reader with a sense of the world order being restored. That just isn't how I see the world, or human behaviour. So, as you rightly pointed out, I borrowed the crime structure but really my interests lay elsewhere. Questions of nature vs nurture and also a need to say something about the damaging impact of institutional life - not just on the inmates.

So, yes, give it a go. I certainly learned one or two things from reading it.

Sangu Mandanna said...

This sounds so intriguing, Jim! You've portrayed it so beautifully that I'm dying to pick it up! Thanks for this!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Sangu. I do hope you think the book was worth the time I put into the review. I certainly found it a noble attempt at infusing new life into a well-worn format.

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