If you are a fan of gritty, urban thrillers it’s time to add crime fiction debutant Elliot Sweeney to the reading list, because The Next to Die could be right up your litter-strewn street.
Meet Dylan Kaspernick, a former Met police officer who has fallen on the hardest of times. These days he works in a run down pub in a less than salubrious part of London, dividing his spare hours between sparring at an equally run down boxing gym and relentlessly drinking himself into a stupor.
But what brought Kasper – as he likes to be known – to this pretty pass? Ah, that’s an easy one to answer. It was the death by suicide of his beloved daughter five years ago. Rosie was just 14 when she jumped under a train and Kasper has never been the same man since. Shrouded in grief and regret, the guy crumbled big time and lost his job, his marriage and his self respect.
However, things change when he meets Tommy at a swish gym where Kasper’s landlady has snagged some guest passes.
The young man makes tentative advances towards Kasper but when other gym members start to hassle Tommy, Kasper jumps to his rescue. Tommy is obviously troubled and needs a friend and protector and pleads with a reluctant Kasper for help. An uneasy friendship begins to develop – but is brought to an abrupt end when, just days later, Tommy copies Rosie’s method of dying after calling his new friend and leaving a cryptic message.
Was it a cry for help? Kasper blames himself but the former cop’s instincts tell him this was no cut and dried suicide and he determines to discover the truth. We’re about to enter a dark and dismal world of sleazy sex, blackmail and the blackest of secrets, and author Elliot Sweeney cleverly manages to juggle all of them and create a story that is both true to life and compelling.
There are no hearts and flowers in play here; instead expect violence and despair – and way too much Jamesons whiskey. Kasper is a man still grieving in his own crazed way and that highway of sorrow (and disregard for his own safety) is invariably going to lead him into a lot of trouble. But once he decides to take on Tommy’s case nobody is going to convince him that the plan is doomed to failure. Big mistake Kasper, big mistake.
The Next to Die is peopled with a cast of quirky characters, from flawed protagonist Kasper to the fey, cheeky and likeable Tommy; his sister Harry, hiding myriad secrets behind her tough exterior and mirrored sunglasses; their buttoned-up professor father Saul Berkowitz; Kasper’s chain-smoking psychologist landlady Dr Steiner; and his former Met colleague and former love interest Diane McAteer and her dog Murphy.
This debut author has a sharp ear for dialogue and is clearly adept at providing readers with a sharply-focused sense of place, traversing the meaner streets of London in a style that brought to mind the books of Ajay Chowdhury and Vicky Newham, which helps create tension and atmosphere as the story unfolds.
Mix all of that together and you have the sort of novel that would do well transformed into a TV series. At the heart of it all is Kasper — a big, brooding, menacing presence but with hidden depths that make him that bit more interesting and well-rounded than the average crime fiction hard man. The good news is that there are are a few tantalising loose threads to tie at the end of this book, making it clear that Kasper will be back and Elliot Sweeney is in for the long haul.
Look at London through a different lens in Capital Crimes, an anthology of short stories set in The Smoke, edited by Martin Edwards.
CFL rating: 4 stars