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Author of the Month

Name: Stephen Booth

First Novel: Black Dog

Most Recent Book: The Murder Road

'...one of Britain's best crime writers. '

Synopsis:
For the tiny Peak District hamlet of Shawhead, there's only one road in and one road out. Its residents are accustomed to being cut off from the world by snow or floods. But when a lorry delivering animal feed is found jammed in the narrow lane, with no sign of the driver except for a blood-stained cab, it's the beginning of something more sinister.

Detective Inspector Ben Cooper must attempt to unravel the history of secrets, lies and loyalties that will lead to the truth behind the missing lorry driver. However, the residents of Shawhead are not used to having strangers in their midst and, while getting to grips with staff changes in E Division, Ben's way forward is far from clear. Will he turn to Detective Sergeant Diane Fry, now working in Special Operations at Nottingham's Major Crimes Unit, for help when the case takes a dramatic turn?

Review:
A new novel by Stephen Booth is always worth celebrating. It's hard to believe ‘The Murder Road’ is the fifteenth in the Cooper and Fry series. I've been with these characters from the first book, ‘Black Dog’ back in 2000. Over the past fifteen years there have been many changes to the lives of our two protagonists, but their stalwart ability to solve crime has always been constant.

Stephen Booth's novels are reminiscent of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels by the amazing Reginald Hill. It's not just the Derbyshire setting but the natural story-telling and descriptive powers that Booth has to depict the horrors of crime against the landscape of one of the most beautiful counties in the country.

‘The Murder Road’ is a rather sedate edition in the series following the last two novels in which Ben Cooper's life has been tragically turned upside down and the plots have raced along at a thundering pace. This one is more about characterisation. It's refreshing to see such wonderfully drawn characters take centre stage without the plot ruling the pace. That is where Booth's talents lie - he knows his characters and can trust them to lead the story.

The plot of a murdered lorry drive is subtle yet darkly mysterious and as Cooper and his team uncover the truth they find many layers to the case. The exit of a staple character, the entrance of a new one, and Ben's domestic life uncertain (once again) make ‘The Murder Road’ a truly dramatic and entertaining novel.

If you compare this Cooper and Fry novel to the last one you will notice they are so vastly different yet both thrillingly engaging. That is the power of writing by one of Britain's best crime writers.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating



Questionnaire

1) This is the 15th Cooper and Fry novel. How do you manage to keep the series fresh after all this time?
For a start, I’m very lucky to be writing about the Peak District. It’s such a fascinating and diverse area that I’m constantly finding new locations, which I hope gives each book a unique atmosphere. I also try to keep changing the dynamics of the relationship between Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, and I juggle the secondary cast around them, so that characters leave the series and new ones arrive. ‘The Murder Road’ introduces a new sergeant for Ben, while old-school DC Gavin Murfin has finally retired. Each book tackles a new theme or background subject too. I find that writing an established series with the same protagonists provides me with a solid foundation to launch out into all kinds of directions.
2) You treat Derbyshire like a character in itself rather than just a setting. How important is Derbyshire for you as an author and your characters? How accurate are you to the landscape?
Yes, it was a great decision I made when I wrote that first book, ‘Black Dog’! It’s just the perfect area for me to write about. It’s full of wonderfully atmospheric locations, and it has thousands of years of history and folklore, including many curiously pagan traditions which still flourish today. Because it’s surrounded by cities and large towns, the Peak District has become the second most visited national park in the world, with all the inherent conflicts and pressures between millions of visitors and the people who actually live and work there. That allows me to explore a subject I’m very interested in - the increasingly tense relationship between city and countryside.

In the beginning, this helped to form the characters of Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, because I wanted two very different pairs of eyes. Ben is the local boy from a farming family, while Diane is a city girl and very much the outsider. Of course, that also created immediate friction between them. Then there are the two distinct geological halves of the area, known as the White Peak and the Dark Peak, which are very different in nature – one is full of picturesque villages and wooded valleys, the other is a bleak expanse of uninhabited moorland. In my mind, the ‘white’ and ‘dark’ formed a symbolic representation of good and evil, right there in the landscape. For a writer, it was too good to resist! Over the years, many of my readers have become a bit obsessed with the settings, and they’ll go out into Derbyshire to try to find every location I mention. It comes down to the smallest detail too, such as the public phone box from which a threatening phone call is made in ‘The Dead Place’. I try to be as accurate as I can about the places I’m describing, but sometimes I have to change the names, or tinker with the geography a bit, or create a fictional version that merges three or four real places. My fictional town of Edendale is an example of that. Edendale doesn’t exist, but when I write about it I’m usually describing a real place that I’ve been to. So the setting is tremendously important, both to me and to readers. The landscape plays a direct role in many of the stories – sometimes for the good, but often in a more sinister way. Those moors can be a dangerous place!
3) When plotting a new novel do you create the crime first, then the character development around that or are character relationships more important?
For me, the characters create the story, rather than the other way round. But when a murder happens, the reasons for it are inseparable from the victim. In this country, the vast majority of murders are committed by someone the victim knows, often a member of their own family. So I’ll usually start with a character about to meet an unpleasant end and then I’ll begin to explore the victim’s life – what they were doing that might have led them into this situation, or what might have gone wrong in a relationship. In my books, it’s rarely a question of how a murder happened, but why. I find that much more interesting to write about than the technical details of police procedure or forensics.
4) There is a lot of information about the lorry/trucking industry in ‘The Murder Road’. What research did you put into this or is it knowledge you already had?
Before I started writing the Cooper and Fry series, I was a newspaper journalist. This means I don’t have any particular knowledge about any subject – but I do know how to find out! This is connected to character again. To be able to write convincingly about characters in their daily lives, I think you need to know a little about their work or area of expertise. In ‘The Murder Road’, several of the characters are connected to the road haulage business, so I needed an idea of what they would be doing and thinking. In fact, I’ve researched a lot of subjects while writing these novels - caving, quarrying, geocaching, funeral directors, Bulgarian gangsters, meth labs, fox hunting, bubonic plague, insurance fraud, World War Two aircraft, the Polish community, running a country pub, or operating a roadside cafe. Not to mention the identification of bite marks and the stages of human decomposition. The list is endless! Fortunately, I manage to forget it all again when I start writing the next book and become absorbed in a new subject.
5) There has been a lot less Diane Fry in the last two novels. What are your plans for her?
Diane has moved out of Edendale now. She’s always been the more ambitious of the two characters, so she was bound to try for a job with the newly-formed East Midlands Special Operations Unit - in the real world these are the people whose job is to investigate murders in Derbyshire. So while she’s living back in the city, she’s still likely to be called out to assist in an investigation. Diane is developing a new private life and career direction. But Ben Cooper might not have seen the last of her, I’m afraid.
6) Following the death of Liz will there be any happiness for Ben?
I know a lot of readers are rooting for him! But since I don’t plan the lives of these characters, I can’t say what Ben will do next. Like all of us, he’s capable of making bad mistakes in his life, and I can’t stop him. Fingers crossed that something goes right for him. At least he’s earned the promotion now, which was a frustration for him earlier in the series. We’ll see what happens in the next book.
7) I've been a fan of Cooper and Fry from book one and thoroughly enjoy your novels. You remind me greatly of Reginald Hill and his Dalziel and Pascoe series. Are you happy with that comparison?
Very happy! Reginald Hill was one of my writing heroes for many years, and it meant a lot to me when he provided a very complimentary quote for the cover of ‘Black Dog’, and later wrote an appreciation of the Cooper and Fry novels for a collector’s edition of ‘Blood on the Tongue’. He was a real gentleman, as well as a great writer. I think he played a major part in bringing British crime fiction into the mainstream from its ‘genre’ category, through the sheer quality of his writing.
8) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Don’t try to copy anyone else, or worry about the writing ‘rules’ you may have heard. Just write what works for you.
9) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Yes, I’d read a huge amount of crime fiction before I started writing it myself. As a reader I came to the genre through writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. The Sherlock Holmes story that made the most impression on me at a young age was ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. It’s a very dark novel, but set in a remote, rural location. It always reminds me of something Holmes says to Dr Watson in another story – that “the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” It encapsulates what I’m trying to do myself now. I also read pretty much everything by Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Rendell in particular was a massive loss to British crime writing when she died recently. Even after all those years, she was still able to produce something fresh and exciting. One of my favourites of hers is ‘A Judgement in Stone’, where she tells the reader who committed the murder and why on the first page – yet still keeps us gripped to the end. That’s a sign of an accomplished writer. Similarly, I found ‘The Sculptress’ by Minette Walters astonishing, with an ending I still think about now.