‘Hands Up’ opens with rookie Officer Ryan Quinn trying to look at himself in a mirror. Literally.

He’s not a murderer. Not really. It was a justified shooting, even if the victim was a teenage boy with no weapon who committed no offence. Everyone says so: his superiors, his partner, his mother and his snooty fiancĂ©e. If only Ryan could believe them all, but he knows the truth, and it isn’t quite what he told Internal Affairs…

What’s it about?

The repercussions of an all too frequent event: a white police officer shoots a young black man and a community is divided. There are marches, protests, demonstrations and what appears to be an act of vigilante justice seeking. Will Ryan lose his career, his reputation and his freedom? Or will he learn to permanently silence his conscience?

Clark gives the reader three focal points: the officer involved, the victim’s sister and the victim’s father. All three are complicated, damaged characters whose true natures emerge gradually in a tale that sees their lives further intersect and explode.

Jade is determined to get revenge for her brother’s killing, though she knows the odds are against any kind of conviction. How far will she go to get justice for Tyrell?

Their father, Kelly, arriving home after a ten year absence, is equally determined to get justice for his son, but his criminal past may make this complicated.

What’s it like?

Genuinely interesting. Dramatically engaging. A crucial relationship develops that’s pretty much impossible to believe in, but I loved the story’s ending – it was the perfect conclusion to everything that had gone before.

While Jade and Kelly’s chapters are third person narratives, the reader lives Ryan’s experience with him as a first person narrator, which is slightly uncomfortable, as he is a killer and (the more fervently he denies it, the more obvious it becomes) a racist cop. (Furthermore, and this is just plain odd, he calls his mother by her first name without any reason. Why?? This is very disconcerting.)

But it transpires that this uncomfortable connection with a killer, much like the impossible relationship, is completely necessary to the evolving narrative. How would we ever comprehend Ryan’s very real belief in his own fundamental goodness and non-racist nature without being in his head? Sure, he is amused by his partner’s racist jokes and tolerates his partner’s illegal and racially motivated stop-and-searches, but he still believes he has no racist leanings until his therapist points out that his only interactions with black people are as potential criminals, and might this have coloured his view? Even then he has to throw a strop first before applying his grey matter to the problem of his attitude to colour.

The solution Ryan comes up with might surprise you. It astonishes his mother and his (frankly hilarious) fiancĂ©e, whose first response to the news that her hubby-to-be has killed a man is to ask: ‘What about the wedding?’

Can Ryan change his attitudes? People can change. After all, Kelly Randolph has: from gang enforcer to anti gang support worker, Tyrell’s dad has rejected a life of crime and just wants to keep his remaining family close. It’s unfortunate that this is the opposite of what Jade wants, but Kelly’s got an idea about how to make her change her mind…

Final thoughts

There’s a lot to enjoy in ‘Hands Up’, Clark’s second novel. His experience as a journalist helps create a pacey story with plenty of intrigue and action, but it was the developing characters and the tantalising possibility of their redemption that I really enjoyed.

Sadly, the initial storyline will be all too familiar to some, and Clark identifies families seeking justice for loved ones shot by police as a key inspiration behind this book. I can only hope that one day the initial events in this book seem outlandish to readers, but in the meantime it is worth remembering that if our friends or colleagues say things that are persistently racist or sexist or homophobic and we don’t challenge them, that we are not just allowing them to perpetuate ignorant attitudes, we are facilitating the survival of these attitudes in our societies and even inadvertently inculcating them ourselves.

‘Hands Up’,
Stephen Clark,
2019, WiDo Publishing, paperback
Many thanks to the author for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.