Literature Opinion

BOOK REVIEW: Dead Regular — the reality of life as a paramedic

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History editor Dr Glenn Davies sits down with the author Harry Colfer to discuss why fiction is the only way to explain the reality of life as a paramedic.

DEAD REGULAR is a novel at the forefront of a new genre — paramedic procedural. Harry Colfer (pen name) is a practising paramedic who tells the reality of life as a paramedic through fiction.

He sees factual television programs such as Ambulance Australia that follow New South Wales and Queensland Ambulance Services from the Triple Zero Control Centres to paramedics on the road as heavily sanitised and not reflecting the reality of the work of paramedics in Australia. Colfer has addressed this sanitisation by portraying reality through fiction.

Dead Regular is a murder mystery set in Brisbane and takes place in 2012. There is a strong sense of place in the novel with the streets of Brisbane anchoring the story.

The paramedic characters portrayed in the novel work for the Brisbane City Ambulance Service (B-CAS), which doesn’t exist and is in no way meant to portray or depict any existing or former ambulance service or organisation. The author makes the point that the 2012 time setting also reflects medical techniques from then.

In Dead Regular, there is one thing stopping Jono from loving his job as a paramedic. It’s not the blood and gore, nor the vomiting drunks, not even the seemingly endless rolling shifts. It’s the overbearing management. He’s a competent clinician who always does the best for his patients, but petty bureaucracy and red tape never fail to fire him up.

Despite this disaffection, Jono won’t ignore the fact that several ambulance “regulars” have been turning up dead. Each death in itself seems innocent enough, but the sudden mounting body count raises his suspicions. Is it just a coincidence, or has someone decided to clean up the city? What’s more worrying is that Jono appears to be the only one who cares.

Catching a serial killer won’t be easy when nobody suspects murder.

Harry Colfer’s excellent descriptive prose and his fantastic use of Australian metaphors make it easy for any reader to enter the fictitious yet very believable world of Jono and his professional life working for the Brisbane City Ambulance Service. Full of unexpected twists that kept me guessing right to the very end, this story made me laugh throughout and even cry on a couple of occasions. It’s craftfully written, at times beautiful in its descriptions, downright and at the same time a real page turner with a plot that rockets along as fast as the code one drives that the Ambos do. It’s an insider’s view of the emergency world that only a few people ever really get to see.

Colfer has a remarkable way of bringing characters into full-blown three dimensional light. There are certainly no flat characters here. Fully developed, Jono and his crew mates take you on a full-tilt journey not only into the world of ambos but also an engaging mystery plot expertly woven in, complete with a little romance.

The quirky references to Brisbane streets and locations were delightful treats to those who can relate. The style is easy to read and brilliantly captures the quick-witted banter and sledging that is a common culture of such close, mission-critical teams.

Colfer stated recently:

‘Everyone knows a paramedic and all paramedics have a story to tell, it’s how we cope with the sometimes confronting nature of our job. Inevitably, when the yarning starts, the stories we tell are full of embellishments and always served with a heavy dose of dark ambo humour.’

The author continued:

‘I started writing Dead Regular back in 2012 because my wife suggested I use it as a stress relief. It took two-and-a-half years to write, and since 2016 have edited numerous times.’

Paramedics face violence on a daily basis. Being ambulance staff can be a high-stress job. They encounter many situations in their daily line of work that can have a lasting impact on their mental health.

Paramedics have one of Australia’s most dangerous jobs — and not just because of the trauma they witness.

Central Queensland University’s Professor Brian Maguire said in 2017:

“The fatality rate for paramedics is six times higher than the national average. Their injury rate is twice as high as the rate for Australian police officers. Assaults account for a large part of the risk, while the number of serious injury cases secondary to assault among paramedics has tripled from ten per year to 30 per year, between 2001 and 2014.”

Violence against people doing their job is unacceptable. And the cost to individuals, the health sector and the public is too great.

In July 2020, researchers at Flinders University published a systematic review of research on paramedics health which found that:

‘...compared with other professions, paramedics have far higher rates of mental health disorders, workplace violence, workplace injuries, fatigue, sleep disorders and suicide.’

The researchers found paramedics say workplace culture – and how state and territory ambulance service management treat their staff – may play an even bigger role in the link between paramedics and poor health.

Harry Colfer has published to date 22 short stories in the Ambo Tales From the Frontline series and plans to write another ten, one for each of the 32 AMPDS codes — the system used worldwide to categorise emergency calls.

Dead Regular is a far cry from the TV reality shows such as Ambulance Australia. It is a funny and clever, fast and unpredictable read with great humour and an extremely descriptive writing style that places you on scene. You gain, as a result, a different perspective of life behind the scenes for a paramedic.

Ambulance Australia season four is filmed on the streets of Brisbane. Dead Regular is set on the streets of Brisbane. One is real and one has been sanitised.

Harry Colfer is definitely an author with a winning, distinct style and one to follow closely as he writes about Jono and his crew roaring 'round and 'round, up and down, through the streets of your town.

Dead Regular is a truly Australian novel.

About the author:

Harry Colfer is the pseudonym of an experienced paramedic who lives and works in Brisbane. Although his stories are total fiction, his writing style is very realistic and he maintains a healthy level of paranoia with respect to his anonymity. He would love to tell you more about himself and someday will, but at the moment he considers that revealing his true identity could be a career-limiting move.

A taster for Dead Regular is available here.

You can follow history editor Dr Glenn Davies Glenn on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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