When a homeless man walks into Greenwich police station and confesses a killing, it should be the admission that cracks open a murder enquiry. Instead, he stumbles out on to the street and collapses, bleeding from a stab wound he’s attempted to repair himself. The newest member of the Met’s murder investigation team, twenty-five year-old Afghan veteran Joseph Stark, doesn’t believe the man’s story. Yet it becomes clear that Stark and the down-and-out share a connection. And that this could provide the key to unlocking the case. Soon, the young detective and his colleagues are drawn deeper into a dark, disturbing world as dangerous as anything Stark has known on the frontline. And where there’s enough at stake for a man to risk everything . . .
Somewhat belatedly I finally managed to squeeze this debut from Matthew Frank into my reading schedule. As the old adage runs, all good things come to those who wait, as this was truly one of the most well-plotted and compelling crime thrillers I have encountered this year…
What struck me most was how this book could so easily be all things to all men (and women) due to the complexity of the book as a whole. First, it is a socially aware thriller with the story focusing on the random attacks on the homeless community in a corner of London by a group of disaffected and vicious youths from a local sink estate. Frank taps in perfectly to the moral degradation of said youths, drawing a contrasting depiction of those on whom they vent their misguided and sadistic violence. This is particularly emotionally affecting after their attack on an aged homeless war veteran, a man of integrity and honour fallen on hard times, and the casual sadism that their ringleaders exhibit. Set against the isolation of their homeless victim, Frank also really gets to the crux of the manipulation and fearful isolation that certain members of the young gang feel, as their sense of morality begins to kick in, putting them at odds with their manipulative gang leader. There is a huge sense of emotional damage running as a motif through the book generally, and in the experiences and dialogue of the youths, Frank captures this perfectly.
Secondly, it’s a well plotted, linear, police procedural with an assured and likeable cast of characters, which could easily establish this as a series. Frank sets up a team of detectives, that you immediately feel comfortable and emotionally engaged with, and the petty rivalries and jealousies that affect any workplace. With the team being mostly overseen by headstrong and outspoken DS Fran Millhaven, Frank immediately gets a gold star for constructing a female character who is both believable and normal, without the usual emotional baggage that tends to follow these characters around. Her interactions with TDC Joseph Stark in particular are a mixture of spikiness, an almost sisterly affection and then pure exasperation, which gives shades of light and dark to their relationship, providing a strong central base for the plot to pivot around. There is also an extremely strong group of bit players, from those linked to the central investigation, through to the characters we see outside of Stark’s police role, reflecting his former career, and the therapy he is undergoing, giving ballast to this being the first of a series. Frank uses some of these exceptionally well, as a mirror to his main character Stark, and how they and we should perceive him and his emotional and physical vulnerability. It’s very well accomplished.
But more than a socially aware thriller, and police procedural, and this is what impressed me the most, was the depth and characterisation of ex-soldier and TDC Joseph Stark ,which gives Frank an enormous amount of opportunity to give us an insight into the mental and physical turmoil experienced by returning soldiers in the wake of conflict. As the representation of war in fiction is a particular interest of mine (and the subject of my MA) I have read widely in the genre, detailing the experiences that Frank explores here. The depth and clarity with which Frank narrates Stark’s experiences in combat, the journey to recovery and the particular difficulties he experiences in adjusting to civilian life and his return to the police force, is truly compelling. Every nuance of his emotional state, and the frustrations caused by his psychological and physical therapy is captured perfectly, along with the intermittent flashbacks to the harrowing events that he experienced as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. This gives a real emotional third wheel to the overall solidity of the book, and the structure of this within the realm of what could be labelled ostensibly as a police procedural, is powerfully done, and perfectly realised.
As you can no doubt tell, I was incredibly impressed with If I Should Die for many reasons, not least because it avoid well-worn cliches within the genre, was powerfully characterised, and addressed some weighty issues in a believable and engaging way. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Penguin for the ARC)