Sometimes People Die by Simon Stephenson – Review
By Sarah Morgan
Literature and medicine. The pair might not appear to fit together well, and yet there’s a surprisingly long tradition of doctors giving up the profession to become full-time writers.
The likes of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Mikhail Bulgakov, Anton Chekhov, Robin Cook and Michael Crichton all followed that route. More recently, Jed Mercurio, creator of such popular TV series as Line of Duty and Bodyguard, and Adam Kay, of This Is Going to Hurt fame, have done something similar.
Someone else following the same path is Simon Stephenson. Although an avid reader from an early age, his first profession was as a doctor; he spent time as a paediatrician in London before the publication of his first book, Let Not the Waves of the Sea, in 2011. It was a memoir about losing his brother in the Indian Ocean tsunami, which he followed by launching a screenwriting career.
Now based in the US, Stephenson has since published a novel, the futuristic Set My Heart to Five, and is now publicising its follow-up, Sometimes People Die, which takes him back to the imperfect world of the NHS.
Like Stephenson himself, his main protagonist is a Scot who moves to London to work. Hopefully that’s where the similarities end.
Told like a long anecdote by the unnamed central character, it’s set in 1999 in a rundown Hackney hospital. It’s the only place that will employ him following a battle with opioid addiction, but he knuckles down to work – until his best friend, lovable George, commits suicide and it’s revealed that a series of unexpected deaths are the handiwork of a serial killer.
Although he’s initially the prime suspect, it soon becomes clear our ‘hero’ is not responsible. Instead, one of his colleagues must be behind the killings – but who, and why? Despite falling off the wagon, he becomes obsessed with tracking down whodunit, but as he goes through the pains of addiction, can his testimony really be trusted?
There are twists and turns and red herrings aplenty here, with Stephenson skilfully weaving a compelling tale, a real old school page-turner I found difficult to put down.
He also intersperses the tale with real reports of healthcare professionals who have turned to murder, reminding us how powerful those who – in some cases literally – hold our lives in their hands really are.
A triumph, Sometimes People Die wouldn’t be the easiest book to transfer to the screen, but I’m hoping Stephenson himself will accept the challenge.
‘Sometimes People Die’ by Simon Stephenson is published by HarperCollins, £14.99 hardback