If your taste in whodunits runs to a beautifully crafted plot, a cast of complex characters depicted with thoughtfulness and realism, set within the Derbyshire countryside – then Stephen Booth’s books are a must. He was one of the visiting speakers on the West Sussex Writers’ Club Day for Writers a few years ago and his session on character development and motivation was excellent. He also came across as a thoroughly nice, unpretentious chap. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a crime journalist who has lived in or near the area his writes about for most of his life – and it shows. The Peak District is every bit as crucial to the atmosphere of Booth’s plots as Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, or Colin Dexter’s Oxford.
It was an ordinary house fire with tragic consequences: a wife and two children dead. But then for DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper the ordinary always means trouble. Trouble like a bereaved family living in fear. Trouble like the shocking assassination of an elderly woman living alone in a quiet Peak District village. What could be the motive for inflicting such violence on harmless victims?
To find the answer, Fry and Cooper must direct their search far beyond Derbyshire to the other side of Europe, in a land where the customs are even more unfathomable than the language. With a little help from Europol, they discover some of the reasons why people can be scared to live – and the connection at the heart of the enquiry that proves to be the most surprising revelation of all.
Scared to Live is the seventh book in this superb series, which follows the careers of DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. And they are fully stretched when in the same week an arsonist kills a woman and her two children in a house fire, swiftly followed by a shooting of an elderly, reclusive woman. Fry, recently promoted over Cooper, is anxious to prove herself and move on from this comparative backwater, while Ben Cooper, born and bred in the area, cannot imagine living anywhere else. To get the full effect of the delicately nuanced relationship between these two, I recommend that you go back and read the series from the beginning, starting with The Dead Place.
If you are expecting the book version of CSI – complete with car chases and graphic gore – then this isn’t the book for you. But as Fry and Cooper trudge through the investigation, the often low-key exchanges and steady accumulation of evidence nevertheless makes compelling reading. And when the occasional burst of violence explodes across the page, as readers, we feel the shock along with the victims. In these days where dead bodies litter our TV screens on a nightly basis, it’s a neat trick to pull off.
I also enjoy Booth’s gift of capturing a character by a gesture or a few words and his wonderful descriptions of the Peak District’s stark beauty – which is often used as a metaphorical counterpoint to the plotline. There is a compelling scene at a local tourist spot, where one of the chief suspects is finally tracked down by Ben Cooper. But for me, what makes Booth stand out, is his interest in the motivations of his criminals. Throughout the book, we have shafts of insight about the all the main protagonists – and by the end of the story, not only do we know whodunit, but why. And in this book, the irony of the denouement is every bit as bleakly haunting as anything you’ll encounter in a literary masterpiece.
I’m delighted to note that his latest book The Devil’s Edge is due out this April. Once I’ve bought it, I’ll hide my mobile phone, take the day off work and settle down to read. Go on – try him. I’ll be surprised if you can stop at just one…