If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch

Sometimes, when reading a gripping crime novel, you feel almost paralysed with helplessness as things go terribly wrong for your protagonist and all you can do is read in a panic as the author leads them to certain doom.

This feeling is crystallised in If I Die Before I Wake, when, from the very first page, we are in the mind of Alex Jackson, a journalist and rock-climber who is confined to a hospital bed eighteen months after falling from a rock-face and suffering a catastrophic head injury.

The trauma has left him in what others consider a vegetative state, but Alex is fully aware – he can hear, and smell, and when his muscles involuntarily open his eyes, he can even see a little. None of the tests are showing any sign of this, and those who love him are starting to consider that he will never wake. Just as Alex comes to term with it himself, wishing death over this version of life, there’s a shift in what’s happening around him. Secrets are unfurling, overheard visits get more cryptic, but one thing is becoming clear – what happened to Alex was no accident.

Emily Koch has done a superb job of strapping you down and holding you in place, able only to piece together information from snippets of conversation between friends, gossiping nurses, family spats and mournful girlfriends. Alex’s partner, Bea, is starting to worry that someone is following her. Alex’s climbing mate Tom and his girlfriend Rosie are endlessly indecisive about what should be happening. Alex’s sister is angry about a rift from years before that will never heal. Alex, able only to be talked at and never able to respond, can’t take notes, can’t always guarantee his body won’t lull him to sleep or get distracted, and, if no one speaks, is sometimes only left with smell and noise cues to figure out who is in his room – and why they might be there. This makes for an enthralling, read-between-your-fingers story, where the protagonist can’t blunder in, guns blazing, at just the right time, but is left with his wits and determination to figure out what went on that day on the rocks – and what is happening right now.

Fiona Hardy is our monthly crime fiction columnist, and also blogs about crime fiction at readingkills.com.