I've been very lucky to have been accepted to take part in the Great Transworld Crime Caper and that gave me the chance to read and review three novels from their catalogue. This is number three. If you'd like to read the other reviews too, they are linked at the bottom of the page.
A writer friend once told me that all the best stories start with a great "what if?" and that might explain what makes The Business of Dying such a riveting read. It begins with one of the best "what if?" assumptions I have ever encountered. What if a mid ranking police officer became so disillusioned with his job that he decided to moonlight as a professional hitman? It's a thrilling place to start a book because within a few pages three men have been murdered in a gangland style killing and the reader does not discover that the gunman is actually Detective Sergeant Dennis Milne until a roadblock forces him to use his warrant card to escape. (Unless you read the jacket blurb, of course.)
It soon becomes obvious that he has been set up, however, when news reports reveal that the dead men were customs officers, rather than the drug dealers he thought he had assassinated. In spite of his part-time occupation Milne is not a bad man. He joined the force to help remove some baddies from the world. He began executing them only after it became clear that modern policing was unlikely to have any long term effect on crime rates or to apprehend the real offenders. There is some interesting and thought provoking discussion on how he justifies his double life and readers are left wondering whether, in the same circumstances, they might not be driven to doing the same thing.
Given that Milne is a senior detective it is no surprise that bodies arrive thick and fast in this tale, and not all as a result of his handiwork. There is enough police procedure to satisfy the amateur sleuths who want to work out for themselves whodunnit but this is not a polished forensic drama. It has none of the glib crime-fighting paraphernalia that has taken over a lot of detective fiction since the advent of CSI. Neither are the murders quite as straightforward as many writers would have us believe. Guns jam. Victims fight back. Blood squelches. Corpses make revolting noises. The business of dying is truly messy.
The book is Simon Kernick's first, and is a much better novel than an author's debut outing usually achieves. It has been re-released on the strength of his later success with Relentless, but this one deserves to be widely read too. Milne comes across as a real guy, facing real dilemmas in a very real world. He is also lacking in many of the now clichéd world-weary copper attributes that have littered crime novels for the last decade. For example, he drinks because he enjoys it, or because he has had a bad day at work, or because he has just killed someone. We imagine we would have a glass or two for the same reasons. His habit is not a plot device, it is a genuine part of the character. OK, so his love life is not too promising, but police work is often cited as having a high divorce rate so that is also believable. (It does mean that he is free to sleep with a suspect, however, even after she makes some startling and incriminating admissions, which is a little far-fetched.)
Beyond that there is little to detract from this cracking tale with its unusual premise. It spins along at a swift pace and is far from predictable along its route. Read it soon. Because life’s too short.
The other two reviews were:
The Chemistry of Death