Author – Matthew Frank
Published – 5 June 2014
Genre – Crime fiction
I was lucky enough to meet Matthew at the Penguin Crime evening and had another opportunity to talk to him at Crimefest in May, where I also saw him on the “Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock: Ramping Up The Tension ” panel. Since I started reviewing books for my blog it’s become apparent that a lot of new authors have some background in writing – whether it be through journalism, copywriting or teaching, so it’s refreshing to meet someone who comes from a different background (he’s actually an architect).
If I Should Die introduces us to Trainee Detective Constable Joseph Stark, newly discharged from the Territorial Army on medical grounds following a firefight in Helmand. And in that sentence are two key aspects that set this apart from many other police procedurals. The first is that I can’t remember a book where the main character has been a trainee detective – which has some interesting implications. It means that Stark has limitations on what role he can play in an investigation which is balanced by a lack of responsibility. Not that Stark is a man to take his duties lightly, after all he is from a background that demanded that he took orders without question.
The second aspect is an unusual twist on the clichéd ‘flawed detective’. His backstory is intriguing and contrasts with the more mundane nature of crime in south London. The background from his time in the forces gradually comes out through the course book and as with The Last Refuge his nightmares give the reader a glimpse into his past. It’s clear that he is hiding something and there is a sub-plot which involves some unfinished business from his military service.
Stark’s first investigation begins with some fairly run-of-the-mill attacks on the local homeless (local being Greenwich) which have been carried out by a notorious gang of youths. From this inauspicious start the attacks escalate and Stark’s involvement develops. One of the real positives from this book is how credible the crime element remains throughout. The investigative part of the book is very detailed and I particularly liked the fact that the story didn’t end at the point where charges were brought, but carried on all the way through to the court case.
The novel is very much character-led and you can’t go wrong with someone like Stark. He is clearly tough but damaged and comes across as something of an enigma to his colleagues, keeping himself very much to himself. During the course of the book he has to deal with the toll that a return to work takes on his injuries and the treatment that he receives as part of his rehabilitation. There is a temptation for him to turn to drink and drugs to get him through but if he gives in there could be consequences for his new career. The dark mood is lightened, however, by his banter with the ladies – both with Fran, his supervising office and someone he meets during his treatment.
A connection with one of the other characters brings some more political topics to the fore and the author explores some of the issues, both current and historical, regarding the treatment of soldiers during and after service. Although this was in context I thought that it affected the pace of the story.
There is a lot of detail in the book – both in the criminal investigation as well as from Stark’s time in the TA. I have no idea how authentic it all was but it was told incredibly confidently and I found it all fascinating.
A great debut introducing an unusual lead character – I’m looking forward to reading more in the series. Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view over at Crime Fiction Lover and you can find the author on Twitter – @M_Frank_Author.