Hope to Die by David Jackson

Review published on April 6, 2017.

If you are looking for the kind of compulsive crime novel that will keep you gripped from start to finish look no further than Hope to Die. Jackson has written a white knuckle ride of a thriller, nuanced and twisty – it will keep you guessing all the way. The smooth flowing prose is both vivid and very evocative with real depth. The story is quicksand, the ground slips and shifts under your feet – you can’t take anything for granted. More twists and turns than a cork screw – this is red herring heaven. It is a serial killer novel that is both original and grounded in the real world.

On a bitter December night, snow obscuring visibility, a woman in her early forties walks her dog near the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. Out of the darkness appears a menacing hooded figure. Mary Cowper just has time to fend off the first hammer blow but is powerless to defend herself as the frenzied attack escalates in ferocity. The violence and viciousness of the attack are shocking. Detective Sergeant Nathan Cody runs the investigation. He tries to find a link between Mary, a teacher, and her unknown killer (he knows nearly all murderers are known to the victim). The problem is Mary Cowper was a god-fearing woman with no known enemies and no apparent skeletons in her closet. Cody’s boss, DCI Blunt, gets impatient for a break in the case and the pressure for a result is ramping up. Only Grace, the tech-wizard, seems to be able to provide any kind of lead to go on. Then the killer strikes again, with the same brutal M.O. Cody is struggling, he is a man with a tortured past and a fractured relationship with his colleagues. Now Megan Webley (his ex-girlfriend and the woman who took a bullet for him on another case) has returned to the team. Cody is also getting silent phone calls in the middle of the night. Things are set to get a lot worse before there is any hope of finding the brutal killer and that will only happen if everyone can keep it together. Of course, a serial killer isn’t usually classified as such until there are at least three victims!

Hope to Die is a solid story that brings some originality to familiar territory (the serial killer terrorising the city). What elevates the novel above the standard fare are some classy aspects such as clever plotting and an eye for detail (sophisticated and intricate).

The story is character driven; this is more than just a crime thriller, it’s about people in extreme circumstances and how they cope. Complex characters who feel very real and very human. Cody is a man with baggage, enough misery and trauma to keep a team of therapists employed permanently on his case. Yet he has to keep it together, think clearly and work the case. He has a complex relationship with Megan, she is the only one he has opened up to about his past. She also saved his life on a previous job and nearly lost her own in the process. Then there is Grace Meade, the civilian tech support, desperate to fit in and prove herself. All very normal people stretched to the limit in very challenging and strange circumstances. The dynamic between the members of the team is great and it good to see the way they play off each other. It bodes well for the future books in the series.

It is a big plus that this actually feels like it could be a real police station dealing with a terrible crime. The dialogue, relaxed and very normal, the banter and gallows humour all smack of how it must be in an incident room. There are no super sleuths, just slightly anarchic cops, in over their heads but determined to get to the truth and catch a killer. We get to watch as they struggle with false assumptions and red herrings; there are no super-tech solutions here. When Grace transfers video footage from her computer to the large TV so that they can all see it, it is the first time that has happened. Hope to Die has the feel of a real police investigation.

Jackson manages to combine some lighter moments, even some humour with truly gut-wrenching horror. The juxtaposition helps the tense moments stand out and hit home with even more force. Overall, this is a dark tale, which will make some flinch. Though this is not salacious or gratuitous and violence is grounded in the real world. As for the killer, I has some sympathy as his story was revealed. There is a scene in the barbershop that is heartbreaking and terrifying at the same time. The backstory involving the clowns is as dark as anything you are likely to read this year. This is not for the squeamish or the coulrophobic. I won’t say much but: “Not clowns as in bumbling fools, but clowns as in terrifying pasty-faced insanely grinning perpetrators of evil.”

There are some beautifully observed scenes and astute observations. When they are questioning one of Mary’s neighbours, Demidov: ‘”she make apples pie for me”, he says, as though that’s all the eulogy she needs.’ In the nursing home, they interview Mary’s mother. What she says at first alarms them but a more natural explanation of it becomes clear, a sinister moment passes.

Nathan Cody is a singular detective, weighed down by his past more than any other detectives I have read, but he is fascinating.

David Jackson is also the author of the Callum Doyle detective series set in New York and the first Nathan Cody thriller, A Tapping At My Door. Just to repeat myself, watch out for the clowns!

Paul Burke 4/4

Hope to Die by David Jackson
Zaffre 9781785761119 hbk Apr 2017

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