Sometimes People Die by Simon Stephenson – blog tour

A bit of scene-setting first, for former doctor Stephenson’s second novel, Sometimes People Die, is more than just a normal medical thriller set in a failing hospital…

Over the years, there have been many memoirs and diaries written by hospital doctors, ones I’ve read most recently include Catch Your Breath by Ed Patrick and, of course, Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt. But twas ever thus, for back in 2008 I read Max Pemberton’s Trust Me, I’m a (Junior) Doctor which was probably one of the first modern memoirs to expose the life of a junior doctor.

Before these though came Jed Mercurio and Bodies (2002) – a wonderful novel and later an equally good TV series, which explored the ethics of incompetency in a senior consultant surgeon in an Obs & Gynae department, seen through the eyes of a junior doctor who progresses through the ranks. Bodies was dark and distinctly thrillerish, and you can still watch all episodes on the BBC iPlayer here – I’ll never forget Keith Allen’s turn as the egomaniac consultant Mr Tony Whitman!

So take the lot of the junior doctor and add a dark, murder mystery and we’re getting closer to Sometimes People Die. Our unnamed narrator is no ordinary junior doctor though, his options are limited having nearly been struck off for stealing pethidine; adding it to patient’s discharge prescriptions and pocketing it to feed his own habit. Having done rehab, methadone and agreeing to weekly counselling, he managed to keep his licence and heads off down to London from Scotland to begin a new posting at St Luke’s, an overworked and understaffed hospital in the poorest part of the East End. His interview had been cursory, the hospital found it difficult to recruit the best staff. That said, our narrator is a competent doctor and works hard, but not as hard as Amelia, another house officer who just seems to be perfect. He can’t understand why she’s at St Luke’s.

Life goes on and he settles in, moving to share a flat with George, an ‘orthopod’, a rugger type and all-round nice guy. Meanwhile, one day the police arrive, they are investigating excess deaths at the hospital and our narrator, with his drugs history is in the frame. But nothing can be proved, so suspicion moves onto one of the nurses, and a porter who has the misfortune to be around most of these deaths. It’s clear to our narrator though that the murderous methods of whoever is causing the deaths requires medical expertise. Then, when his best friend and flatmate George is found dead in his car, presumed suicide, he vows to find out what drove him to this act, and to find the perpetrator of the other deaths. Sadly, this coincides with finding some pethidine tablets left behind by a patient, and all too soon he’s a functioning drug addict once again…

Will he be able to expose the murderer and avenge George? Will he survive his addiction again? Will the police work it out before our narrator?

Stephenson has created a superbly drawn narrator who is a likeable reprobate who understands but can’t always control his habit; a young man with a self-deprecating sense of humour but who is also an unexpectedly dedicated doctor, all combined with a page-turning plot. But the author also adds one more dimension to this novel – which is a potted history of healthcare killers. Beginning with an introductory insert quoted from below after the first few chapters, he adds further pieces detailing the murders under medical care from Xenophon in AD54 through the body snatchers all the way up to Harold Shipman!

The notion that a healthcare worker might intentionally harm a patient is a profoundly troubling one.

And yet a hospital is an almost perfect hunting ground for those motivated to end rather than enhance human life. […] It is a place where death is an everyday occurrence.

But why would a healthcare worker ever seek to harm a patient? […]

Perhaps the answer is simply that, as a group, healthcare workers are no less flawed than anybody else. Certainly, each time a new healthcare killer is apprehended, the professional bodies rush to release statements pointing out the culprit was not a healthcare worker who became a serial killer, but a serial killer who became a healthcare worker.

This exploration of the darkest side of the medical profession adds a grim accent to this novel, highlighting that many of them got away with it for ages before being caught, and that in the profession, as Mr Hurley says in Bodies, ‘doctors look after doctors’.

The portrayal of the junior doctor’s life in Sometimes People Die is undoubtedly authentic, drawing from the author’s former career. The crime thriller element is complex and the medical detective work that the narrator has to do is exciting while remaining consistent with the setting. As medical thrillers go, it is low-key and literary in style – no Robin Cook airport cheese – and I loved this novel all the more for that; there is suspense though which builds as the reader tours through those healthcare murders.

I also immediately ordered a copy of Stephenson’s previous book – spec fiction set in our near future in which dentistry meets Hollywood!

Source: Review copy – thank you! Borough Press hardback, 350 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

4 thoughts on “Sometimes People Die by Simon Stephenson – blog tour

  1. Laura says:

    Oh, interesting! I read a decent chunk of Stephenson’s previous novel, Set My Heart to Five, but couldn’t get through it – the narrative voice was brilliant in small doses, but too much for me over the course of a novel. This sounds a bit less zany and more up my street.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The crime, although very serious of course, was almost secondary for the first half. It was a bit different and I liked it a lot.

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