Source: Review copy
Publication: 1st September from The Borough Press
My thanks to The Borough Press and Midas PR for an advance copy for review
The year is 1999. Returning to practice after a suspension for stealing opioids, a young Scottish doctor takes the only job he can find: a post as a senior house officer in the struggling east London hospital of St Luke’s.
Amid the maelstrom of sick patients, over-worked staff and underfunded wards a darker secret soon declares itself: too many patients are dying.
Which of the medical professionals our protagonist has encountered is behind the murders? And can our unnamed narrator’s version of the events be trusted?
Sometimes People Die is entirely a first person narrative. It is written by an unnamed junior doctor who, to be fair, is unlikely to make anyone’s list of top doctor of the year. Deeply flawed, he struggles by with the bare minimum of medical knowledge and working in St Luke’s, a place of last resort where recruitment is largely drawn from the medical register of ‘who is left who couldn’t get a job anywhere else?’
With a known opiate addiction for which he is undergoing mandatory psychotherapy, our doctor‘s narrative is reminiscent of Adam Kay, but with less anger and more resignation towards the very real difficulties of working in the under-resourced NHS where mistakes are always going to happen and by some miracle they don’t happen nearly as often as they might.
This narrative very much carries the ring of authenticity. It is clear that Simon Stephenson knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the life of a house officer in a hospital. Utilising a somewhat sardonic tone, our unnamed doctor takes us on a tour of the sick and the dying, recounting the saves and the near misses as he goes.
Soon, though, it becomes clear that not all is well in St Luke’s, beyond the obvious lack of resources. Patients are dying of things that they should not die from and the number of patients that are passing without a clear cause is growing.
As he relates this story to his readers, he intersperses his narrative with tales of famous cases of medical murders. From so called Angels of Death to Harold Shipman, we are treated to the most notorious of medical murders over the past several decades.
It all lends additional plausibility to out protagonist’s narrative and serves to add a more chilling tone to his often witty telling of this tale. Unsurprisingly, given his background, it is not long before our doctor becomes a suspect in what evolves into a serial murder enquiry. Though he is interrogated, there’s not really enough evidence to charge him and he returns to work, though the killings do not stop.
Speculation is rife throughout the hospital about what is going on and who might be responsible and the doctors even mock up a murder board in their mess room with their own darkly humorous suggestions.
As our doctor, who is at least improving his medical skills as he learns on the job, begins to investigate who might be responsible his investigations lead him into more trouble and he suffers badly when a housemate fails his exams and falls by the wayside.
I found this to be a fresh and captivating tale, told well and with credibility and conviction. It is a refreshing take on medical murder mysteries and held my attention well throughout. It makes sense that a doctor is best placed to find out what’s going on than the police, whose instincts are always to look for those with flawed pasts.
Verdict: An entertaining, credible and informative medical thriller with a difference. I loved the tone and enjoyed our narrator’s perspective. The conclusion was both fascinating and surprising. I really enjoyed it.
Simon Stephenson originally trained as a doctor and worked in Scotland and London. He previously wrote Let Not the Waves of the Sea, a memoir about the loss of his brother in the Indian ocean tsunami. It won Best First Book at the Scottish Book Awards, was a Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, and a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year. His first novel, Set My Heart to Five was a Bookseller Book of the Month and was described by the Daily Mail as ‘Funny, original and thought-provoking.’ It has been optioned by Working Title Films to be directed by Edgar Wright from Stephenson’s screenplay. He currently lives in Los Angeles, in a house where a famous murder took place. As a screenwriter, he originated and wrote the Benedict Cumberbatch starrerThe Electrical Life of Louis Wain and wrote the story for Pixar’s Luca. He also contributed to everybody’s favourite film, Paddington 2.