When I started researching A Ruined Girl, I knew plenty about one of the two central themes and almost nothing about the other. I’d spent months working undercover in children’s homes for a documentary, so that part was covered. But my main character was a probation officer, which was new territory for me. The first stop was to stock up on novels fronted by POs – but as it turned out, the list was not long.
Not that there aren’t plenty of authors more than qualified to tackle the subject: Ann Cleeves, MW Craven, Mari Hannah, Ruth Dugdall and many others left careers in probation to become writers. Far fewer, however, choose to write about it: as Hannah told me, writing probation just didn’t appeal when her partner, a former murder detective “always had more fun than me”.
It’s no secret that probation has a bit of PR problem – with that perceived lack of excitement it’s hardly surprising that so few novels take the space between incarceration and what follows as their setting. By the time a convicted criminal is released on licence, most of the obvious drama is over. But that residue was exactly what I wanted to look at – the long tail of the crime, the aftermath for the people left behind. As any probation officer knows, the crime doesn’t go away when CSIs have packed up and gone home, and the TV cameras have disappeared from outside the courtroom.
My probation officer Wren Reynolds has her own reasons for needing to trust in the possibility of redemption and transformation. Although that ethos is arguably the key to success for the real-life PO, it’s not something she shares with all of her fictional colleagues. The clutch of probation officers here all share Wren’s fortitude, but the belief in the system is sometimes harder to spot.
1. Worst Case Scenario by Helen Fitzgerald
Glasgow probation officer Mary Shields’s personal life is being damaged by a brutal menopause and an out-of-control sex drive. She’s throwing in the towel, but during her last case – men’s rights activism poster boy and wife-killer Liam Macdowall – her career descends with horrifying inevitability into catastrophe as she makes one cringe-inducing error after another. Riotous, excruciating and utterly original, this was one of my books of 2019 and won Fitzgerald, herself a former prison social worker, a place on the Theakston’s crime novel of the year shortlist. If the pitch-black wit doesn’t get you, the humanity will.
2. The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood
I defy anyone not to develop a soft spot for Sandy, the probation officer described by Falklands veteran Jimmy as “mad as a snake, but you could talk to her. If you dared.” The camaraderie between Jimmy, messed-up, vulnerable Deano, and conspiracy-nut Gadge offers hilarity and uncommon tenderness, but Sandy also stands out as a bright spot in the gritty realism. Her near-clairvoyant perceptiveness is a source of constant concern to Jimmy in Wood’s blistering debut, but despite the sword she holds over his head, there’s no doubt that she’s ultimately on his side.
3. Slow Motion Riot by Peter Blauner
Steve Baum, a Harlem probation officer during the 1980s crack epidemic, shares a lot with my protagonist. Both suspect they’re fighting a losing battle, but refuse to let go of hope. As Baum puts it: “Here’s the secret, which I almost never say out loud: Every once in a while, you might just turn one of these guys around.” In this pacey, compassionate thriller, Blauner explores the conflict between intention and reality in Baum’s work.
4. Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall
PO Cate Austin tackles adolescent murderers, their eventual release back into society, and the conflict between their right to a fresh start and the enduring pain they caused as children. The eponymous young adult Ben is drawn with unflinching honesty by a writer with a masterful grasp of nuance and contradiction. Highly recommended.
5. No Beast So Fierce by Ed Bunker
Written while Bunker was in prison himself, this 1972 semi-autobiographical novel pits career criminal Max Dembo against his PO, Rosenthal. An avatar for the self-satisfied, somnambulant law-abiders Bunker clearly loathed, Rosenthal is a weak, flabby jobsworth, and Max takes great pleasure in scaring the shit out of him. Some wonderful observations here: “There was no forgetting that our relationship was essentially that of a knife held to a throat.”
6. Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard
“I’m not your friend, I’m your probation officer.” PO Kathy Baker is just trying to chip away at her massive caseload when she unwittingly catches the amorous eye of local judge Maximum Bob, notorious for handing out unreasonable sentences. Her job gets a lot more difficult when someone sends an alligator to his front door, and several of her parolees appear on the suspect list. A badass with iron-clad boundaries, job-sick Kathy is the foil to the maniacal Bob in Leonard’s madcap yarn.
7. The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin
Set in the Watergate era, Sandlin’s debut novel follows rape survivor Delpha Wade, newly free after 14 years in “Do-Right” (Southern slang for prison) after killing one of the men who raped her. Wade’s well-meaning parole officer goes above and beyond to help, but while the plot winds into delicious twistiness, it’s the study of Wade’s emotional wounds, inflicted both before and during her stretch in jail that gives this novel such gravity. With shades of James Lee Burke, Sandlin’s prose is smoky and knife-sharp, detailing Wade’s re-emergence into the free world as she gets used to “clear air around her, the streets stretching out, doors that open open open. She’d have to get used to wearing sky over her head.”
8. Dead Inside by Noelle Holten
Infused with an easy authenticity born of long hours as an actual senior probation officer, Holten’s debut features Lucy Sherwood: no-nonsense PO by day; fearful, abused wife by night. Things are already looking bleak when three ex-offenders in Lucy’s caseload are murdered, but when her own sadistic husband becomes the fourth, it’s the PO herself who’s drawing the heat.
9. Boy A by Jonathan Trigell
Closely aligned with the real-life James Bulger murder case, Trigell’s 2004 debut tracks an adolescent offender through his new identity, guided by “Uncle” Terry – “his parole contact, his only true friend”. Trigell presents a holistic panorama of the crime, drawing attention to its enduring reverberations, with Terry demonstrating unwavering, near-suffocating investment in Boy A’s success. Disturbing and bleak, but a unique, important read.
10. Drama City by George Pelecanos
Pelecanos doesn’t give probation officer Rachel Lopez an easy ride in this 90s gangland thriller, but then, she’s not the kind of woman who’d take one. What sets Lopez apart here is her humility, demonstrated most memorably at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings at which she bumps into client Lorenzo Brown. She’s genuinely rooting for her ex-cons but she’s also acutely aware of how easily she could have found herself on the other side of that desk. A slow-burning but utterly immersive slice of DC life.
A Ruined Girl by Kate Simants is published by Profile Books on 27 August. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.