Developing a series character wasn’t a conscious choice. I suppose writing a police crime novel demonstrates the hope of a series, but that might be putting the cart before the horse. I wrote the book I wanted to write and then, after timely editorial input and several consequent drafts, If I Should Die was complete and Penguin signed me up, initially for two books.
I was, and am, overjoyed. Having spent a great deal of time with Joseph Stark, his irascible detective sergeant Fran Millhaven and the insightful DCI Groombridge, I feel I still have much more to learn about them. I read a variety of genres but I do love a series. Whether it’s Patrick O’Brien’s Napoleonic naval adventures, the extra-terrestrial explorations of Kim Stanley Robinsons Mars trilogy, a twisting crime series or a Tolkienian fantasy saga I enjoy taking time to see characters develop and grow. The reader should be left wanting more, yes, but the reward for their loyalty should be a true empathy for the characters they’ve invested in.
So how did I come up with Stark? I’m not sure I can put my finger on a satisfactory answer. If I Should Die is not my first book. The first, a genre-hopping comic thriller with a supernatural twist, languishes in a dusty drawer, awaiting the day I have time to tidy it up for general consumption. Its main characters have varying moral outlooks but there was also a strong police thread that I enjoyed writing very much and the story explored what it means to place duty before desire, or character before flaw.
So, why a policeman? Well, I like a good crime drama, especially if the people are as interesting as the crime. If there’s one stereotype a detective character must fit, it’s not fitting in; whether its the hard-drinking, hard-hitting, hard-thinking, hard-headed maverick, the embittered loner, the cerebral sociopath, the ball-breaker, the washed-up washout, the broken soul or the meddling old lady. Joseph Stark fails to fit in a number of ways – he’s only twenty-five, a trainee investigator just starting out in CID, but couldn’t feel more distanced from his peers, he’s obstinate, reserved… and he’s a killer who’s lost count of the bodies. But before you stick him in the fine company of Hannibal Lecter or Dexter, he’s not a serial killer – he’s a soldier. Or was. Injured at the end of his third combat tour, he finds himself unfit for military duty or service as a beat copper, both his careers in tatters, damaged in body and soul. And then his old Superintendent suggests CID, and a new chapter opens.
So, why a soldier? Whether or not it feels that way to the majority of people safe at home, wars rage on around us constantly. I grew interested in the increasing role of the Territorial Army and other reservists in modern warfare, people who take time out of their safe day-jobs and lives to serve in harm’s way. Whilst there is evidence their broader age range and life experience augments their capabilities there is also evidence they are more prone to suffering afterwards – in part because they don’t have the ‘family’ of comrades that comes with life on base as part of the standing army. What then of their day job? How do they fair, does experience help or hinder their reintegration? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, has become a familiar phrase. How the men and women effected reintegrate, or don’t, into their lives back home, the support they are offered, the cracks they fall through, are our responsibility.
This side of Stark’s character sprang from my interest in this; in the nature of service and the covenant it invokes between those that do and those that are served. His previous role as a uniformed police constable hints at this sense of duty within Stark, and the overlap between the two facets of his working life allows me to test his character in the round, his morality, his physical capabilities, his thinking, hopes and fears. Both careers place him outside much of life looking in.
Into this I chose to add a crime plot that I believed would jar most violently with Stark’s moral compass, the seemingly random, pointless and callous attacks on homeless people by kids, for kicks. To someone who knows violence, who has taken the ethical stance of meeting it with reasonable force understanding the personal cost, the sheer inanity of the crime is what shocks most.
When prank becomes murder and sinister shadows lengthen, Stark must find out whether he is any longer fit to oppose wrong. Haunted, he can justify the lives he’s been forced to take, by duty, circumstance, necessity and self-preservation, for security and defence of the defenceless, but that only gets him so far. And meanwhile the pressure is building for him to face the implications of his last day in Afghanistan, the day that changed his life and threatens to change it more. Already worn down to breaking by experience. He must draw his own line in the sand and hold fast, or fall trying.
I hope that’s given you some insight into Joseph Stark. There more under the surface… and I haven’t even mentioned the indomitable DS Fran Millhaven of the cool-headed DCI Groombridge! I’m enjoying writing the second book in the series at the moment. Joseph Stark has many miles beneath his feet, with many more to travel. I hope you’ll join us along the way.
(c) Matthew Frank
About If I Should Die
Vicious, apparently motiveless attacks begin on down-and-outs in South London. But when someone dies from their wounds, it’s murder.
For Afghan army veteran and Trainee Detective Joseph Stark, death is all too familiar. Injured in an attack that killed his colleagues, it’s enough just trying to recover without enduring the rigours of a murder investigation.
When a victim fights back it becomes clear that there’s much more at stake than gangs preying on the vulnerable. But with the truth in sigh, Stark’s strength is fading and his formidable determination to see justice done may not, this time, be enough.
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