British writer Stephen Booth was a journalist for twenty-five years before turning to fiction. In 2000, his debut novel, Black Dog, marked the arrival in print of his best known creations — two young Derbyshire police detectives, DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry. Black Dog was the named by the London Evening Standard as one of the six best crime novels of the year, the only book on their list written by a British author. In the USA, it won the Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel and was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery. The second Cooper & Fry novel, Dancing with the Virgins, was shortlisted for the UK’s top crime writing award, the Gold Dagger, and went on to win a Barry Award for the second year running.
Booth has turned a novel a year in the series since its inception; the eleventh Cooper & Fry novel, The Devil’s Edge, came out this year in England. All the critically acclaimed Cooper & Fry books are set in England’s Peak District.
Stephen, it’s a great pleasure to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. One of my early books, Bike and Hike, has a number of hikes in the Peak District–it’s got to be one of my favourite parts of England. To start things of, could you describe your connection to Derbyshire and the Peak District?
I write about the Derbyshire Peak District, but I don’t live in Derbyshire and never have. I live in the next county, so I can get wherever I want to in the Peak District within an hour or two. From a writer’s point of view, this helps me – as every time I go there, I see it afresh and notice things that local residents don’t. If you live in a place, you do tend to take it for granted, I think.
I fell in love with the Peak District when I was working on a local newspaper just outside the national park boundary. One of my leisure activities has always been walking in the hills, and this is a paradise for walkers. When I came to start writing the Cooper & Fry series, it was a perfect setting for me – not least because no one else seemed to have used it!
What things about the Peak District make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The Peak District appealed to me on several different levels. I was born in a similar area a little further north, and I know the people can be a little, shall we say, quirky! They’re stubborn and tend to say no more than is absolutely necessary (it’s called being ‘close mouthed’), which makes them interesting to write about. This a very beautiful location, but I like to turn over the picturesque surface and look for the darkness lurking underneath. The Peak District has a huge range of wonderfully atmospheric locations for me to use within a small area, plus thousands of years of history – much of it visible right there in the landscape, from stone circles to abandoned lead mines and more recent industrial history. It’s the second most visited national park in the world, with millions of visitors resulting from the fact that it isn’t really remote, but has big cities right on the doorstep, so that everyone treats it as their back yard. One of the subjects I explore in the books is the uneasy relationship between city and countryside. Of course, there are inherent conflicts between all those visitors and the people who live and work in the Peak District. Plus, it creates special problems for the local police, since it’s very easy to commit your murder in one of the cities and drive out to the Peak District to dispose of the body!
It came out of the real, human characters. I don’t think you can entirely separate location from character anyway, since we’re all shaped by where we live and where we come from. I wanted one of my central characters, Ben Cooper, to be the ‘local boy’ who’s grown up in the Peak District and belongs to the area totally, while the other, Diane Fry, is an outsider from the city. Because of their conflicting attitudes to the area, I think it was inevitable the setting would take on a greater importance in its own right. It can be quite a frightening place anyway, particularly for people unfamilair with the hills and the unpredictable weather. The Peak District has been responsible for many deaths!
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
For me, each book has to be set in a very specific location. It helps me to work out who the characters are who would live there. I go to a lot of trouble to find just the right places. For Dying to Sin I wanted a derelict farmhouse as a setting for a story about an old farming family who’d come to a tragic end. I drove around for a long time until I spotted just the right farmhouse in the distance. It was only when I climbed over the gate to take a closer look that I discovered how much mud there was in the abandoned farmyard. That became the first line in the book: “The mud was everywhere at Pity Wood Farm.” I also have to be very specific about the time of year, as an area like the Peak District looks totally different from one season to the next, and there are completely different things going on.
How does your protagonists interact with their surroundings? Are they natives, blow-ins, reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitants, cynical about it, a boosters?
Ben Cooper, the ‘local boy’, loves the Peak District and is very much apart of it. He’s from a farming family, and has deep physical roots in the area, down to being steeped in its myths and folklore. He sees the place very differently from Diane Fry, who is a city girl born and bred. She’s horrified by many rural practices and considers the Peak District a primitive wasteland. Fry is a very reluctant resident, and can’t wait to escape!
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The Cooper & Fry series is very popular in the Peak District. Even the tourist authority loves them, though I’ve increased the murder rate through the roof’! I was asked to suggest some locations for their ‘Peak Experience’ visitor guides, thereby creating a sort of Cooper & Fry trail. I write about a real police force, Derbyshire Constabulary – and they like the books, too. The police have been very helpful to me from the beginning. Reviewers seem to like trying to work out the identity of my fictional town, Edendale, which doesn’t exist but bears a lot of similarities to real places.
The books have been translated into l5 languages, including Russian and Japanese. So now the majority of my readers are people who’ve never heard of the Peak District until they pick up one of my books. I love the fact that I’m introducing the area to countriesaround the world! Last summer, a party of Norwegian readers came over to visit some of the locations used in the books, and they made a point of staying in the same pub where the convicted murderer stayed while he was on the run One Last Breath. For some of these readers, the landscape is difficult to picture, so I’m consciously doing a bit more description for them than I need to for my UK readers. The reviews I’ve read some to be intrigued by the location too.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
In one book, I had Ben Cooper driving eastwards over the Snake Pass and arriving in a town called Glossop. Anybody familiar with the area knows this is impossible, as he would have to be driving west. The reviewer for the local daily paper spotted it straightaway. But instead of writing “the author made a mistake here”, he wrote: “This is obviously a very clever ploy by the author to disguise the real location of Edendale”. So my mysteriousness worked in my favour! Early on, I began to contradict myself about which streets certain buildings are on, so I had to draw myself a map of my fictional town. Otherwise I would have got myself into all kinds of trouble by the l2th book!
Of the Copper & Fry novels, do you have a favourite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
My novel Blind to the Bones is set around Withens, the last surviving village in an area cleared of human habitation for the building of reservoirs. I think the sense of isolation and impending disaster is quite strong in this book. Here’s the moment when Ben Cooper first sets eyes on Withens:
“Cooper could hardly see the village itself. It seemed to be lying in the bottom of a hollow, slipped casually into a narrow cleft in the moors. The valley was so narrow that it looked as though the two facing slopes were only waiting for the right moment to slide back together and crush the village completely, and all its inhabitants with it.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Some of these do use location well, but in fact, my original inspiration for my use of place was more a feeling of what wasn’t happening in crime fiction at the time. Back in the 90s, it seemed that any mystery set in the countryside or a small town would automatically be a ‘cosy’, whereas all the darker, grittier stuff was set in the mean streets of the big cities. I set out to write something on the darker side, but set in a rural location. Then I realised this is a tradition going back a long way – to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, with a story like The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is very dark, but with a wild rural setting. In one story, Holmes tells Dr Watson: “The lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” There seems to be a mysterious connection between my first novel Black Dog and Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles– which is, of course, about a large black dog.
What’s next for your protagonist?
I’ve just finished the l2th book in the Cooper & Fry series, which features a very distinctive location, a famous landmark pub on the moors called the Light House. The two central characters have both come to critical turning points in their lives. I can’t say a lot without giving too much away, but nothing is going to be the same again. The dynamics between the protagonists have been changing over the last few books, with some new characters arriving, and now others who are about to leave the stage!
Stephen, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Stephen Booth, visit his author homepage.