Saturday, 3 September 2011

by Jim Murdoch - most detailed reviewed on the internet?


Friday, 2 September 2011The Sacrificial Man

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide – Albert Camus

A year ago I reviewed Ruth Dugdall’s novel The Woman Before Me. It has the feel and shape of a crime novel but the twist is that we already know who the guilty party is; they’ve been apprehended, charged, tried, convicted, sentenced and are now up for parole. What the book does is follow the probation officer, Cate Austin, as she tries to come up with a recommendation to put before the parole board. There is a catch. The sole criterion for eligibility for parole is remorse and the prisoner in question, a woman called Rose Wilks, who has been charged with the accidental murder of a child, has always – and continues to – maintained her innocence. How can one express genuine remorse for something you say you never did? As it transpires, she is innocent of the crime for which she had been convicted, but everyone is guilty of something. Now, that might seem like a lot to tell you about Ruth’s first ‘Cate Austin’ novel but I have my reasons. If you have the time and the inclination you can read the whole review here.

I was very taken with The Woman Before Me. It has its weaknesses and I’m not going to ignore them but I loved the premise and frankly expected to be disappointed by her next novel which I imagined would fall back on a more traditional style. I thought this approach would work for one novel but that would be it. I’m pleased to say I’ve been proved wrong. The question is: Has she fallen foul to the law of diminishing returns? You know what I’m on about: you’re hungry and someone hands you a ham and mustard sandwich and it’s the very best ham and mustard sandwich that you have ever had in your puff and it’s so damn good that you want to eat it all over again, whereupon your kindly host hands you another, identical sarnie but it never is the same, is it? Whereas the first one was great, this second one is only very good at best.

The Sacrificial Man, much to my surprise, has exactly the same structure as The Woman Before Me. It’s as if Ruth has rubbed out all the characters in the first book bar Cate and filled in new ones. The ‘Rose’ character is now Alice, a university lecturer (Exeter College, English Literature). The crime is not murder, it’s assisted suicide, a crime that can attract up to fourteen years in prison so it’s not that it’s not serious, it is. The premise is the same and the approach the same – Alice gets to narrate her story and Cate’s side of things is told in the third person – and again the question is: what is, in this case Alice, guilty of? She’s been charged, tried, found guilty but not sentenced. This is where Cate Austin comes in. It is her job to make a recommendation to the court.

That surprised me. I thought that the judge would have simply decided that there and then. In an article in the East Anglian Daily Times, Ruth, who used to work as a probation officer herself, had this to say about the job:

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.

Anyway, I’m pleased to report, Ruth Dugdall has got better at making ‘sarnies’. The approach may be identical but her writing has improved. It is still not a perfect novel and the main weakness in the first book for me is actually amplified by the fact that her new antagonist is a much bigger character this time. In The Woman Before Me, Rose doesn’t exactly jump off the page but Alice does. Do you recall Tim Burton’s Batman, the one featuring Jack Nicholson as the Joker? I remember at the time some criticism was levelled, quite rightly, at the film because Nicholson dominated the film. Some critics even went as far as to say the film should have been called The Joker there was so little of Batman in it. If this book had been called Cate Austin I might have said the same.

Alice Mariani suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves. Dr Gregg, the psychologist assigned to assess her, asked Cate Austin:

“Have you heard of egomania?”

“Well, yes,” she replied cautiously, “but I didn’t think it was a medical term.”

“It isn’t. It’s the nineteenth century word for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but I think it sums things up nicely. I think Alice is a classic case. There are nine key features to the disorder, and my initial assessment is that she scores high on most of them. She’s preoccupied with power, arrogant and has a feeling of entitlement to act as she feels fit. Another feature is a lack of empathy.”

On top of this she is very beautiful. And knows it. She is poised, articulate, and comes across as very sure of herself. She drives an MG Midget (Cate, “a run-around in dull green with a dent in the wing.”) This is her book and don’t you forget it: she’s talking to you:

I’ve chosen you. You will listen. You are my judge, the true arbiter.

Those words aren’t addressed to Cate or Smith or any other character in the book. Alice kicks down the fourth wall and makes sure you’re paying attention.

(For the record, by the way, the most likely diagnosis for the Joker, although definitely a narcissist, is probably antisocial personal disorder.)

So, what is her story all about? Alice has responded to an online advert:

Man seeks beautiful woman for the journey of a lifetime. I will lift mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help. Will you help me to die?

The quote is from Psalms 121:

1. I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.

2. My help cometh from the LORD,
which made heaven and earth.

If you read the entire psalm is has a similar feel to Psalm 23, the LORD is my shepherd. The appeal is from a guy who uses the Internet name, Smith – his real name is David Jenkins – Alice going by the name Robin, names which they mostly continue to use in the real world once they finally meet. Smith is not a crank, at least he doesn’t appear to be, he says he’s not terminally ill and despite quoting the Bible he doesn’t come across as a religious nut either. His online profile reveals little though:

He’d been a fan of Morrissey in his teens and I imagined a melancholic youth with floppy hair smoking dope. He said he was a Catholic and, however lapsed, the faith was in his blood.

It’s the name that first attracts Alice:

To me, Smith was beautifully anonymous – an Everyman. I didn’t want the unique or standalone; I sought the mediocre, the average, the one lost in a crowd. I wanted the man who worked behind a desk, who microwaved cardboard meals, who rubbed the sore grooves down his nose, scored by his glasses, Mr Mousy Hair, Mr Nylon Shirts. Strange, that I sought the ordinary when I’m anything but.

Others respond to his ad, but Robin/Alice is his choice.

Her assessment of Smith is right on the nail. He works as an actuary for an insurance firm in London. He’s twenty-seven, a popular age to die, although John Keats, whose poetry and philosophy of life features, was only twenty-five. In chapter ten Cate gets to see Alice deliver a lecture on Keats, albeit one on film as she has been suspended from actual teaching duties. The talk ends with…

As Keats said, ‘I conclude,’ projecting to the camera, ‘now more than ever seems rich to die. To cease upon the midnight with no pain. A perfect death is a way to cheat the dulling, dumbing effect of time. To die at the heart of love is the only way to preserve its purity.’

Alice, predictably, enjoys watching herself onscreen:

My onscreen image is beautiful, slim, clever. To Cate Austin, as to the students sitting enthralled, it must appear as if I have it all.

So why would this clearly intelligent woman who has “it all” agree to help a complete stranger end his own life? She’s not a member of The Hemlock Society, although this pro-suicide organisation does take an interest in her case, in fact she doesn’t appear to have any strong feelings on the subject that don’t come out of a book and like many academics when asked a question she’s prone to respond with a quote. Or is that just a front? At her core she comes across as a Romantic. Even when she thinks about the very real possibility of a custodial sentence, this is what she comes up with:

The word is too romantic, a beautiful lie. ‘Prise’, a word for open. Said quickly prison could be present – birthdays and Christmas. How can such a word mean something so ugly, so absolute, as incarceration? I shall say jail. The word is more honest, in it you can hear the clink of keys in locks. I like to be honest with words…

David Jenkins – Smith – on the other hand is very different but one can also see why, once she got to know him, there might have been some attraction. He’s a decent bloke, organised – his suicide note is written months in advance and goes to great pains to ensure that Robin, as he calls Alice, is protected from prosecution. He writes:

Robin is no more responsible for my death than a train driver who runs over a guy who jumped on the tracks. She may be driving the train but she never made me jump. It will be me swallowing the drugs, knowing they bring death. The eating, too, is my request. Robin doesn’t even really want to – she’ll be doing it for me. And I’ll be alive at that point, so it’s not even illegal.

Right. I probably should have mentioned the eating bit. But I won’t, if you don’t mind, mention that bit. Yeah, I know, that puts a whole different complexion on everything. Especially since Alice is vegetarian. Is this all starting to ring bells now? Let me remind you:

Recently [in 2002], a man in Germany was put on trial for killing and consuming another German man. Disgust at this incident was exacerbated when the accused explained that he had placed an advertisement on the internet for someone to be slaughtered and eaten—and that his ‘victim’ had answered this advertisement. The man had first castrated his willing victim, and then the two had eaten the removed flesh. Following this, Armin Meiwes administered a drug, stabbed Bernd-Jurgen Brandes to death, cut him into pieces, and placed him in the freezer—a delicacy to be consumed over several months. – J. Jeremy Wisnewski, ‘Murder, Cannibalism, and Indirect Suicide: A Philosophical Study of a Recent Case’, Philosophy in the Contemporary World 14:1 (Spring 2007)

The man in question was Armin Meiwes who was arrested in December of 2002 and, indeed, it was hearing about the case on the news that first sowed the seeds in Ruth Dugdall’s mind. Meiwes was put on trial in 2003, and convicted of manslaughter in January, 2004. He was sentenced to 8½ years. Of course Ruth references it in the book along with other similar cases; she’s obviously done her research. There are clear differences, however, between the circumstances surrounding David Jenkins’ death and what happened in Germany but, needless to say, the press, ever keen to sensationalise things, focuses on the act of cannibalism, something Alice thinks little of:

It was like eating the dead skin from a scab. It was nothing. It was rubber and salt.

As with The Woman Before Me the facts in this case appear clear cut. No one is accusing Alice of misrepresenting the facts or of trying to wriggle out of anything. But what we believe to be true isn’t always what turns out to be true. And that is what Cate Austin, as she carries out her investigation, uncovers.

Like all novels of this ilk the suspense is derived from eking out information. As it happens the day of his suicide Smith posts a letter to one of his workmates, Krishna Dasi, that proves to be the sole piece of evidence that is needed to clarify what really happened and who is guilty of what and if Krishna hadn’t hung onto it for weeks before deciding to hand it over and, if, when he did choose to hand it over, he had picked a police officer rather than Cate Austin, or if Cate had been a faster reader than she apparently is (taking another 113 pages to get through something she could and should have read in an hour), then everything would have been done and dusted by page 163 or thereabouts. I’m being picky. It’s not as if her being a slow reader gets someone else killed. It just means that it takes a bit longer for everyone to find out the truths and how they change their lives.

There is another layer to this book. We have Alice talking straight to us, we have Cate’s story and then we have a third story, the backstory where we learn where Alice came from and what happened to make her the person she has turned into. Really, the fact that she willingly agreed to be a party to someone’s suicide is one of the least interesting things about her once you learn about her mother and what happened to the two of them, how Alice ended up in care and also how Alice ended up rich: by the end of the book she’s been transformed from merely the accused into a real person. Smith, not so much, although we do learn a lot more about him, but this is Alice’s story.

As with The Woman Before Me, Cate is the weak link. This is what I had to say about her last appearance:

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.

and I feel exactly the same about her in this book. I know that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple’s talent as a detective lies in the fact she is unobtrusive, blending into the background where she can conveniently overhear relevant snippets of conversations but she still has character; in the early novels she’s a gleeful gossip and not an especially nice woman before Christie softened her down and made her more “fluffy”. In an e-mail Ruth said this to me:

The question of whether Cate should be more to the fore was one I struggled with, and in earlier drafts she is much more present. I removed these sections as I felt Alice – and Smith – had such strong storylines and I was worried about distracting the reader. Maybe I was too heavy handed with my removals?

It’s a difficult call. But my main feeling about Cate in this book is the fact that she does precious little detecting. Yes, she notices that Alice swapped vases – that was well spotted – but she failed to notice how ill Alice was until it was pointed out to her and Krishna simply hands her the vital piece of evidence; no one knows it exists before then. To be fair it’s more realistic this way – my wife and I are always tearing apart cop shows on TV apart for the remarkable leaps in deduction they make and don’t get either of us started on forensic evidence – but it does make her a bit dull; a necessary player but not a very exciting one. But then she doesn’t need to be; we have Alice.

Bottom line? I enjoyed this. It asks some serious philosophical questions in the midst of everything and there are no easy answers. This is not just a crime novel or a psychological thriller. I like that. Ian Rankin chose to be a crime novelist because he realised that a detective was the perfect tool to prise open the lid of society. He’s a serious novelist masquerading as a crime fiction writer and I believe the same is true of Ruth Dugdall. The Sacrificial Man is also topical, Sir Terry Pratchett, for one, having raised the public’s awareness of the subject. The copy I was sent has four pages at the front praising Ruth’s writing but I’ll echo what Frances Day (an Amazon reviewer) had to say: both Ruth’s novels are a “refreshing change from the usual crime mystery, populated with real character you can believe in.” I would have no problems reading her next book but I would like to see something a little different next time. When William McIlvanney (another serious novelist) wrote his third and final Laidlaw novel rather than writing in the third person as he had done in his first two novels he wrote Strange Loyalties in the first person presenting a very different book. I would like to see Cate Austin come out of the shadows.

I thought I’d ask Ruth about this.

In your e-mail to me you said that you deliberately toned down Cate’s role in this book because Smith, and Alice, especially, are such large characters. That wasn’t the case in the first book and yet I still felt that she lacked in many ways. I see from reading other reviewers that this is the common criticism of your protagonist. How do you think you’ll avoid us saying the same about her next time?

I’m responding all the time to what readers tell me. Because it took me several years to find a publisher I was, to a large extent, writing in something of a void, not sure how my novels would be received by the general public. Now that I am in the fortunate position of being published I often hear from readers, especially at book groups (I usually visit one every few weeks) and what I am hearing is that people are intrigued by Cate and want more of her.
In earlier drafts of The Sacrificial Man there was more of Cate’s back-story, but I felt it distracted from Alice’s narrative (which, for me, is the pulse of the novel) so I deleted it. I’ve learned that readers see Cate as the voice of reason and are also interested in the rarely portrayed probation perspective. My next Cate Austin novel (Humber Boy B – a work in progress) will see her coming more into the foreground, and will reveal what motivated her to train as a probation officer. Readers have guessed that she has some skeletons in her cupboard and it’s time for me to reveal some of them.

In both of these books the ‘bad guy’ is actually a woman. Obviously your experience working as a probation officer brought you in contact with a lot of ‘bad’ women. Do you think that the way that women are treated in the criminal justice system is different to males; mad rather than bad?

I feel this very strongly. For me one of the final frontiers of feminism is to acknowledge that women are equally capable of violence, of harm, of terrible deeds, as men. As a society we are still shocked when women are involved in violent or sexual crimes and prefer to believe that the woman was either under the influence of a male or mentally ill. I know it’s anecdotal rather than statistical evidence, but I worked with many people who had been abused by women, and in several of the murder cases I supervised there had been women who were also involved who had avoided charge. Women are treated very differently by the Criminal Justice system and as long as that remains the case we won’t have a true picture of crime and the psychology behind it. Novels are just one way in which it is possible to challenge normal assumptions about criminal behaviour, and I hope my novels add something to this debate.

You said in a recent Radio 4 interview that motherhood was one of the reasons you started writing in the first place. Can you explain?

Well, firstly on a very practical level it gave me the time to really concentrate on writing. I’d gone from being a student into full time work, so when I was on my maternity leave it was my first real chance to really clear my head and start to pull together my ideas. I also think that when I was working I was very bound up in being a probation officer and the stresses of the job, so maternity leave gave me some distance and perspective. Motherhood is a very strong theme in both The Woman Before Me and The Sacrificial Man and having children myself meant that I cared even more about this very vital relationship. In my work I had seen how devastating it can be to have an abusive or absent mother, and it was natural for me to connect with this theme when I came to explain how Rose and Alice came to be the women they are.

I noticed that you did a lot of work on this novel using the site Authonomy. Can you tell us a bit about that experience? Is it an approach you would recommend and, if so, why?

I love Authonomy. It is a fantastically supportive environment, and I do believe it can open doors for people. At the very least it is a chance to meet (in cyberspace) with other dedicated writers and get feedback. This in itself is vital for a writer – we can’t be defensive about or work if we want to improve, and criticism that is given constructively is a gift. This is a lesson that can be learned on Authonomy, and in quite a safe way, as people are very generous with their support.

Writing is lonely, but a site like Authonomy is the virtual equivalent of the office water cooler. You can log on, enjoy a chat, read a thread, then get back to writing.

There are a lot of crime novelists out there and a seemingly never-ending stream of cop shows on TV, presumably read and watched by people who have never murdered anyone, nor would ever imagine murdering anyone. What is the attraction?

Fear. We all fear having the rug pulled out from under us, and crime novels allow us to experience this vicariously and then see the world restored to its rightful order, as usually the conclusion of a crime novel is redemptive in nature.

I believe you have two more books under your belt. Can you tell us a little about them?

The next novel that will be submitted to publishers is called My Sister and Other Liars and is a totally different kind of novel. It’s a coming of age story about Sam, a teenage girl, whose sister was attacked and left brain damaged. The police have no evidence about the attack and are closing the case so Sam has decided to find her sister’s attacker and enact her own revenge.

After that comes Innocence Lane, which is about a man who kills his wife, but says he was sleepwalking when he did this. The defence of sleepwalking has been used successfully in both the UK and USA and I think it’s a fascinating notion.

Both novels are stand-alone pieces, set in Suffolk, and feature characters introduced in TWBM and TSM, although not Cate Austin.

Well, all I can say is that I’m looking forward to reading them; Innocence Lane especially calls out.


Although the events that take place in it follow on from The Woman Before Me, The Sacrificial Man is a standalone novel. It is published by Legend Press and the last time I looked could be bought on Amazon, new, for as little as £4.00.