Written by Matthew Frank — Joe Stark is a trainee detective constable. Based in Greenwich, he has recently transfered from his Hampshire home. But he’s no ordinary copper – Stark is a wounded war veteran, recently returned from several tours, most recently Afghanistan, where he sustained the physical and mental damage that still afflicts him.
Almost immediately Stark and his mentor, DS Fran Millhaven, are called to a crime. A tramp has been viciously beaten. A local gang of known troublemakers led by Nikki Cockcroft and Kyle Gibbs are the prime suspects. However the gang are old hands at evading the law and there’s insufficient evidence to pin the crime on them. Even though the tramp eventually dies the police seem powerless.
Soon there’s another attack on a homeless man, but this time the victim fights back and one of the assailants dies in the process. Stark investigates and feels a personal pull because the vagrant is an ex-soldier called Maggs and he’s hiding something as well. He admits to murdering his attacker but, although the evidence seems to point to the ex-soldier, Stark isn’t convinced. It’s not the action of a military man. So Stark carries on digging, attempting to build a case against the gang.
In parallel Joe Stark is battling with his injuries and an MOD investigation into how he gained them. He’s having counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder and physiotherapy. This means time out of the office, much to Millhaven’s displeasure, particularly when Stark won’t confide in her. It turns out Maggs isn’t the only one with a secret. Who is the army colonel who keeps on demanding Stark cooperate with the MOD investigation and why is he so keen to keep it hidden? Millhaven is determined to find out.
This is a highly assured debut and one this reviewer thoroughly enjoyed delving into. The writing is of a high quality and Frank more than manages to take what seems to be a mundane crime into something much more significant with multiple layers that steadily build.
Perhaps the author’s main strength is characterisation. There is an immediate empathy with Stark, but also a significant question mark regarding his character. He’s clearly tough, intelligent and out of the ordinary. Stark wasn’t your typical soldier, he was a Territorial, a volunteer, and undertook several tours. Throughout the novel he is conflicted, you will steadily learn about his past.
Then there’s Millhaven. A detective through and through, she’s not sure what to make of Stark. She’s fiery and direct, but is mediated by her boss, Groombridge. Then there’s the criminals. Gibbs and Cockcroft are nasty pieces of work, but eventually we come across Dawson, the local crime boss.
The action is often slow and steady, as the author peels back the layers. It’s a long book that took quite a few sittings to get through but there’s plenty to be revealed, such as the section on how Stark gained his injuries – a full blown battle scene which is excellent and moving – and whether Maggs is guilty or not, and who he’s protecting.
It appears that this is the first in a series of novels regarding Joe Stark. We’ll look forward to the next.
If I Should Die is out on 5 June.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars