It was worth waiting for.
Dugdall, after working as a Probation Officer in high-security prisons in the UK for almost a decade, turns loose her insight into high-risk criminals, in the person of Cate Austin -- reporting for her first day at work as a prison probation officer, after a ragged few years of poor work performance. Not her fault, really: what else do you expect from divorce in the midst of parenting a toddler, juggling child care, arguing with a thoughtless ex who makes things harder than they need to be? And that's why Cate needs to do well and make a really strong impression at her new assignment. Arriving late on the first day, and being "hit on" by co-workers, suggests it's going to be tough, no matter what.
Cate's debut assignment is to assess whether Rose Wilks, an accused child murderer, is ready for parole. No matter what Cate decides, it's going to be controversial -- who wants a baby killer released? And it's clear right away that Rose is a powerful prisoner within the pecking order of women inmates. Plus Rose has steadily denied her guilt. That's not a good way to go into a parole hearing, as it means she's not going to say she's sorry. Cate's first task is to get Rose to open up at the prison, and it might not happen.
Rose smiled, her shoulders dropping a little. "So I'm in good hands?"Dugdall's hard-won experience is directly transferred into both Cate and Rose: two faces of women facing enormous and risky social pressures. And there's another woman whose past Cate will have to unearth, Emma, whose life has been eerily parallel to Rose's, and whose child Rose is accused of killing. Manslaughter? Murder? Jealousy? Emma was "the woman before" Rose with the same lover ... and Rose's baby is also dead.
Cate knew this was an attempt to draw her in, but she was practised at rebuttal. "I'm sure you know my job is to write a considered report, recommending whether or not you should be released on parole licence. You've been found guilty of manslaughter and that's my starting point. What I'm interested in is if you'll reoffend. If you're sorry for your crime."
"And how will you know that?"
Now it was Cate's turn to consider. This question struck at the heart of her job, the weighing up of words and emotions. ... When Tim left she'd sunk into despair, robbed of her self-belief. She told herself now it was just the illness making her doubt her abilities. She was better now, ready to be back. She could do this.
This is a potent psychological thriller, driven by Rose's casual malice and wickedness in the past. Yet in the long run, there's reason to see things her way, and Cate's soon entwined in a web of motives, means, and opportunities that puts her own family at risk. And herself.
The point of view of a seasoned probation officer makes the writing in THE WOMAN BEFORE ME engrossing and believable, and the plot twists and emotional slashes repeatedly challenge easy solutions, "normal" beliefs. I found the book to be one of the summer's best -- and was intrigued to discover that Dugdall's been a very busy writer since that 2010 award. I hope her other books (see her website) make it across the ocean a bit more quickly than this one!