The Sacrificial Man by British writer Ruth Dugdall is a dark, absorbing, satisfyingly twisted psychological thriller.
The second novel to feature probation officer Cate Austin, The Sacrificial Man sees Cate charged with preparing a pre-sentence report for Alice Mariani, who is convicted of assisted suicide after helping her lover David Jenkins die. The couple met online after David, assuming the pseudonym Smith, posted the ad, ‘Man seeks beautiful woman for the journey of a lifetime: Will you help me to die?’ Alice aka Robin not only helps him die, but agrees to his outlandish request for her to consume some of his flesh after the event.
Although there is no evidence David/Smith was ill, the case becomes a cause célèbre for enthanasia advocates. Cate’s job is to assess the case and recommend a sentence to the judge, requiring her to spend time with Alice as she seeks to better understand her motives and to determine whether she is a danger to herself or others.
The two woman are drawn in sharp juxtaposition. Cate is a divorcée with shared custody of a young daughter, dismissed by Alice as ‘so average: brown hair, pale skin, a worn winter coat flapping over a navy suit with a white shirt. Predictable.’ Alice by contrast is in her own words ’beautiful, slim, clever’, an academic with a fondness for Keats and an MG Midget parked out front of her beautifully appointed home.
The psychological sparring match between the two women drives the narrative, together with flashbacks to the traumatic childhood that shaped Alice’s warped notions of love and loyalty. What propelled David/Smith into Alice’s arms is also conveyed through diary entries written in the months leading up to his death.
Dugdall is unusual in allowing her villains — or are they victims? — to outshine her hero. This is the case in both The Sacrificial Man and her earlier novel, The Woman Before Me. The Sacrificial Man might be marketed as a Cate Austin novel, but it is Alice Mariani’s story that grabs the reader by the throat and won’t let go. The reader spends more time in Alice’s head than anywhere else, which is both unsettling and engrossing.
Dugdall doesn’t save the twists only for the tail. I can’t comment on any without risking spoilers, except to say I admire the dexterity with which she pulled these off.
I had to read the ending twice to get my head around what happened, and I’m still ruminating on how I feel about it. There were a few details that jarred — like whether a knife used to excise someone’s flesh in an assisted suicide would be taken in as evidence — and some gory bits involving cannibalism.
But while The Sacrificial Man may put off your food, it’s also guaranteed to keep you up at night, as only the best crime thrillers will do.
The Sacrificial Man by Ruth Dugdall (2012) is published by Text.