Review: Hands Up – Stephen Clark

My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction, police, USA
WiDō Publishing, Salt Lake City
First published: 2019
ISBN: 978-1-947966-20-8
Pages: 290
Supplied by Stephen Clark

From the cover:
Officer Ryan Quinn, a rookie raised in a family of cops, is on the fast track to detective until he shoots an unarmed black male. Now, with his career, reputation and freedom on the line, he embarks on a quest for redemption that forces him to confront his fears and biases and choose between conscience or silence.
Jade Wakefield is an emotionally damaged college student living in one of Philadelphia’s worst neighbourhoods. She knows the chances of getting an indictment against the cop who killed her brother are slim. When she learns there’s more to the story than the official police account, Jade is determined, even desperate to find out what really happened.
Kelly Randolph, who returns to Philadelphia broke and broken after abandoning his family ten years earlier, seeks forgiveness while mourning the death of his son. But after he’s thrust into the spotlight as the face of the protest movement, his disavowed criminal past resurfaces and threatens to derail the family’s pursuit of justice.
Ryan, Jade and Kelley – three people from different worlds – are on a collision course after the shooting, as their lives interconnect and then spiral into chaos.

There’s one heck of a lot going on in Hands Up. Even more than is set up in the summary above. And that’s just on the surface. Underneath, what I mean is what the book sets off in the reader’s mind and the moral, legal and social justice questions it raises (in anyone with a brain between their ears), is something else. I can always tell a good book, one that I have enjoyed and was worthwhile reading, by how much I’m thinking about it afterwards. I’m thinking a lot about Hands Up still.

From Bernie Saunders’ Facebook page,
February 2020

I don’t want to go through all the issues touched on in the book here, there isn’t space or (your) time. As a European of course, the idea that a policeman would first and foremost have a gun on him to shoot a motorist (of any colour) just because he (later) might say he (the policeman) felt threatened by him (or her), takes a little getting used to.

Of course, in the UK, there has been a lot of problems with the Stop and Search tactics of the British police. Stopping a disproportionally high number of young black males. Some say they’ve been stopped for no reason dozens of times. Note that they are, in contrast to the US, still alive to be able to complain they’ve been stopped dozens of times. Probably not if they lived in the USA. The shooting of the young man, obviously, has many, many consequences. We learn, little by little, more and more about circumstances around the incident from the police side, and the family trauma and chaos that it unleashes. The characters Stephen (good name that) gathers in the book are all very well handled, are believable, as in, yes, they would be like that if they were close to this incident, rather than the usual group of cut-out suspects one finds in many books, or films of this sort. The young black lad’s father and his ‘troubled’ past, throw up many issues, not least the tendency to have sympathy fro a grieving father – until you find out he used to be a criminal. Then sympathy does tend to go out the window. The idea of ‘justice’ and ‘revenge’ also gets aired (well, I thought it did) in this connection. Do people affected by the death, unlawfully as they might see it, want someone to (in Europe) go to prison for a long long time, or in the USA (probably) get the death penalty, because they want justice, or revenge? If the perpetrator gets freed or doesn’t get the penalty the relatives of the victim thinks they should, they say they haven’t got justice. But they have. If the person gets put away for 30 years, the relatives say they can now put the whole thing behind them and get on with their lives. Revenge has been served.

I found interesting similarities between the young man’s sister, Jade, and her father, Kelly, even though there is a simmering, threatening to boil over, hatred between the two sometimes. They both have the best intentions of turning their lives around after having both suffered trauma, shall we say, in their past, but the incident sees them slipping back into old habits. You’ll see it when you read the book.

Photo of Philadelphia by Gibson Hurst™ on Unsplash

The policeman’s family don’t get away scot-free either. He becomes the victim, in their eyes. Eve, they say, in the eyes of his father they say, were he still alive. He was an ex-cop who seems to have been the reason Ryan became a policeman himself, though as more is revealed about his past, I found there popped up a real problem for Ryan to wrestle with, in that he wanted to be a policeman because of his father, but his father – maybe – wasn’t really worth wanting to be like, shall we say. So Ryan needs to question why he is where he is and what he wants to do about it.

The pacing of the story is pretty much perfect, with strong, thoroughly believable characterisation and is a fine vehicle for Stephen Clark to raise the questions he seems to want to raise (I hope I haven’t read into it too much that he maybe didn’t intend, but there you are). It could perhaps have been a simple story of right and wrong, but is made complex due to the seemingly irreconcilable different angles the characters see the incident that sparks the book off. There is a lot going on- and off-stage, and Stephen makes light of the (self-imposed) complexities, marshalling and developing his various strands with admirable and satisfying ease. The writing is tight, effective, the dialogue authentic – giving the story real relevance and could easily have come from tomorrow’s headlines. I also felt – partly because I enjoyed the book so much – that it should have been a hundred pages longer. I did think the main, how can I describe it without giving the plot away? Let’s say ‘relationship shift,’ happened a little too quickly. I thought it could, should, have been developed and gone through in more depth, and the story could easily take another hundred pages without losing any of its undoubted impact.

A young black man driving along minding his own business, is stopped for a minor traffic offence by two policemen. One police man shoots the young man, he dies. It is never as simple as that.

You can buy Hands Up from Amazon

Stephen Clark is a former award-winning journalist who has worked for the Los Angeles Times and He is also the author of the critically acclaimed political thriller Citizen Kill.

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