Sometimes People Die, a review by Joanna

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Sometimes People Die

Simon Stephenson


368 pages

Publication: September 1st, 2022


This title caught my eye when a GoodReads friend commented in her review that it had too much medicine in it for her – a big plus for me: I generally love crime thrillers written by real doctors, and the more bleak hippocratic humour the better. It’s like a version of This Is Going To Hurt as written by Gregory House – but without all the objects being retrieved from orifices. This is part memoir – an accurate portrayal of life as a junior hospital doctor in the late nineties NHS, but with a serial killer mystery thrown in to broaden the appeal to lovers of true crime. It is entirely fictional, apart from the inserts about famous murderous medics across the ages every few chapters – other reviewers have felt these to be an unnecessary distraction from the plot, but I found them fascinating.

The narrator – who’s is never named, recounts how twenty years earlier he found himself working in an understaffed public hospital in the East End of London, after nearly losing his medical licence for stealing pethidine to fuel his opioid addiction in his native Scotland. The work is gruelling – the never ending drudgery of healthcare interspersed with crash calls to cardiac arrests that seem to be happening all too frequently, until finally the question is raised – could a killer be walking the wards? When his past is revealed, our protagonist becomes the lead suspect, but a lack of evidence and the dearth of doctors mean he keeps his job – but the deaths don’t stop. Can he unmask a murderer whose methods are matched only by the vast array of diseases they diagnose daily?
  “Our patients were the sickest in the city: they frequently suffered from Victorian ailments, travelled to the farthest corners of the globe to bring home obscure exotic diseases, and sometimes just good old-fashioned shot each other.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this – despite the trauma of a trip down memory lane from having worked in British hospitals myself only a few years before the time it’s set. The writing is brilliant, and the observations astute – only actual doctors know the pressures that distort your thinking to the point where incarceration can seem preferable to going to work: “I found myself inevitably thinking again about what my life in prison might be like. I did not seem likely to do well there, but consoled myself that perhaps I could ingratiate myself to the other inmates by providing them medical care. Beyond that, the sole upside I could think of was that I would at least no longer have to work nights.”
His account of his (minor spoiler alert) relapse into addiction felt scarily believable. Our flawed hero admits he was hopeless medical student, but downplays his clinical skills  – his imposter syndrome stops him recognising what his colleagues can see, that does actually deserve his place, and he turns out to be a better detective than the incompetent investigators leading the murder enquiry. “An incorrect diagnosis is like having a pebble in your shoe: you can go a certain distance with it by reassuring yourself that you are simply imagining the unease you feel, but deep down you know it is wrong, and at some point it will need to be addressed.” I can see that a lay reader would find that all the in depth medical details slow down the plot – the book is longer than it needs to be, but I liked the way it’s all wrapped up. Recommended to those who enjoy medical thrillers and don’t currently have a serious disease or a loved one in hospital. 4.5 rounded up. Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the ARC.

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