The Devil’s Dice by Roz Watkins

devils diceA new author and a Derbyshire setting to a crime mystery novel – it’s a book I really wanted to like, and at first I did.

This book may be the first in my recent venture into crime novels that has been written in the first person.

I think this allowed Watkins to write with more humour than has been evident in  a lot of the other crime fiction I’ve read, Her protagonist, DI Meg Dalton at times expresses a mildly self-deprecating view of her circumstances.

I hoped he wasn’t going to come over all patronising on me. I wasn’t even blonde anymore – I’d dyed my hair a more intelligent shade of brown, matched  to my mum’s for authenticity

I also liked Watkins’ descriptive skill.

An elderly dog lay in the corner draped over the side of his basket like one of Dali’s soft clocks.

However despite wanting to love this book, and the early fulfilment of that desire with writing like the above quotes, I found a bad taste became more and more evident the further into the book I read; all due to an increasing anti-religious, anti-God sentiment that started to pervade the story.

Here is one example:

“If I thought someone had created this world deliberately, I don’t think I could live with my fury. So, no. No benevolent gods in my construction of reality.”

This sentiment, which echoes attitudes I’ve read from Stephen Fry, is only part of the ongoing, cumulatively negative portrayal of religion and God that eventually led to some unfortunate, raving, religious nuttery from one character.

For me that unavoidable aspect of the book spoiled an intriguing story that starts with the death of a man in a small cave. Beside his body a Victorian era carving of the grim reaper and the dead man’s initials are found. Was it murder or suicide? And how could the century old carvings seemingly predict his death in that place?

The story includes good use of landscape, one of the elements that drew me to certain crime fiction writing in the first place. Like Stephen Booth’s One Last Breath, Watkins takes the reader underground through claustrophobic cave systems, bringing back memories of other stories I’ve read at different times in my life* and adding to my determination to never try caving as a hobby.

Watkins also looks at some serious social issues relating to genetics, terminal illness, euthanasia and the sacredness (or not) of life, very emotive issues that don’t always have clear cut simple answers; but it is through raising those issues that the author jumps feet first onto the anti-religious path mentioned earlier. I continued reading with the hope that she would also bring a more reasoned consideration of  religious adherence, but right to the end, and particularly at the books climax, religious observance and belief in God is portrayed in extremely negative terms, and tantamount to being the cause of humanity’s ethical dilemmas, holding mankind back from more caring and “progressive” ways.

…if religious folk don’t want to take advantage of euthanasia for themselves, that’s fine… But why should they stop others based on their beliefs? They can believe in Santa Claus if they want, but don’t use it as a reason to torture people

At the end of the book there are two sample chapters of a follow up, Dead Man’s Daughter. They seem to promise more of the better aspects of The Devil’s Dice and I’ll probably give it a go when it’s published, with the hope that Watkins doesn’t take the same kind of route in her second book as she did in her debut.

__________________________________________________________

* Particularly one of Alan Garner’s early books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or The Moon of Gomrath) and Marc Chadbourn’s Underground. The latter being set in the coal mines of my childhood home region.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Keep the Home Fires Burning, edited by Jen Edgar

home firesKeep the Home Fires Burning (World War II Stories from Swadlincote and Surrounding Areas), edited by Jen Edgar.

For several months I had this book on a wish list with a second hand book dealer, before I finally decided it was time to buy it.

I’ve long wanted to find out more about the wartime history of my family home-village, Newhall, where I spent my childhood. Swadlincote is the nearest town, and by the time I lived there, village and town had more or less merged into each other.

Located at the southern tip of Derbyshire, Swadlincote is close to the borders of Staffordshire and Leicestershire and was developed around the presence of coal and clay. My family had lived in this area for generations until we moved to Australia in 1971.

I’ve heard a few war time anecdotes from my parents, and I’ve been interesting in finding out more of that war time history beyond those family stories. Disappointingly this book didn’t provide what I’d been hoping for.

Based on personal interviews of residents of the area, the book has been compiled as a collection of memories that haven’t been given any context. They remain as separate, unrelated accounts that could relate to anywhere instead of having any particular local relevance.

For me the most significant aspect of the book was the involvement of students from my former school (William Allitt School, Newhall) in the interviewing process.

I’m sure there would have been many more interesting stories out in the community, sadly stories that are being lost as a war time generation dies out. There would also be a framework of historical events that could have given a collection of anecdotes and memories a logical context. Despite what I’m sure were worthy intentions, I found this book misses those opportunities

One Last Breath by Stephen Booth

I’ve been reading Booth’s Cooper and Fry series in order, and I’m therefore not sure how well the stories work as stand alone books. While each covers an individual police investigation spanning from the committing of a crime through to its resolution, the ongoing relationships of recurring characters progress from book to book, and therefore familiarity with their interaction and experience in previous stories is probably needed for a more complete appreciation of the subsequent books.

Near the beginning of One Last Breath, Mansell Quinn is released from Sudbury minimum security prison after completing his “life” sentence for a vicious and bloody murder, but instead of heading to the designated post-release hostel in Burton-on-Trent, he chooses to head back to his former home town, leading police to fear for the safety of his surviving family and former friends.

Regardless of the story itself, Stephen Booth’s fifth Cooper and Fry book got my attention very quickly with references to places familiar from my childhood, including two mentioned in the previous paragraph.

see here: Burton Baths

Firstly, I was born in Burton and was quite familiar with the town during the 60s and early 70s. It’s where my family did a lot of our shopping, and its Victorian era swimming “baths” was where I learned to swim and where I spent many Saturday mornings.

Secondly, while I never personally saw the Sudbury prison, my dad’s cricket team played there once or twice a year against a prison team. For obvious reasons, the prison team was the only one not to play away games, and it was the only time that families weren’t allowed to accompany my dad’s team to a match.

Thirdly, one of the characters recalls the petrifying wells of Matlock Bath; another note of personal familiarity. These wells fascinated and scared me. In reality everyday objects were left in limestone rich waters, and over time the accumulation of limestone upon the objects would give them the appearance of turning to stone. In my childish naiveté I had the fear that if I accidently touched the water I’d be immediately changed to stone.

While those familiar references make these books personally  appealing, they are only an added pleasure, supplementing the intrigue, mystery and unpredictability of each story.

Booth likes to include local geography, history and folklore into his stories. This book has references to caving, centred on cave systems around Castleton. Reading it brought back memories of the claustrophobic feelings I’d experienced in other books where characters had to make their way through dark, narrow underground passages or mine shafts*. One Last Breath gives an added sense of danger to that claustrophobia by weaving within the story the real life account of Neil Moss, a young man who became trapped while exploring a new shaft within the Peak Cavern system. He died and his body couldn’t be recovered.**

Throughout the Cooper and Fry books, the complications of family and family histories regularly feature; such as Dianne Fry’s search for the sister who disappeared when she was a child, and Ben Cooper having to live up to the legacy of his father, a respected policeman killed while on duty.
This book expands the issue of family ghosts, and how the deeds of one generation can effect those of another.

Within this book, Booth manages to bring all of those elements together in its conclusion. And like the books before it nothing is predictable.

the-entrance-is-ruined.jpg

Peak Cavern, Castleton

 

https://goo.gl/images/ED2Y7i

___________________

* By Alan Garner, either The Weirdstone of Brisingamen or The Moon of Gomrath – which one I don’t recall, where children have to escape through a narrow tunnel system under the Cheshire landscape.

And Mark Chadbourn’s Underground, based in the coalmines around the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border.

** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Moss_(caver)

Blind to the Bones, Stephen Booth

Officers were explaining patiently to distraught mothers that it was impossible for somebody who had been missing for only twenty-four hours to have been reduced to a skeleton in that time, no matter how badly they’d been eating recently.

 

After enjoying Blood on the Tongue so much, I wanted to head straight into the next of Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry books, but found the early chapters surprisingly hard going.

The previous book’s build up was increasingly rewarding right up to the final, satisfying resolution of its many varied story threads. Starting this one so soon afterwards was like having to immediately prepare for another journey. I think the “hard going” was a result of having to  become familiar with another itinerary and some different travelling companions before the glow of a previous, well-loved trip has subsided.

Blind to the Bones includes the disappearance of a young woman who went missing two years previously; a case with significance to DC Fry whose sister  vanished during her teens.

The young woman’s mobile phone is found not long before her former housemate is found murdered on the Derbyshire moors. Is there a connection between the two?

Again Booth weaves elements of  folk customs landscape and community issues into his stories. In this book the Derbyshire practice of well-dressing is featured. He also introduces Morris dancing, although in a more brutal, industrial age form than the more familiar prancing, waving and rattling version that I had been more familiar with – having seen practitioners of that in the market place of my childhood home town prior to moving to Australia.

Investigations into the girl’s disappearance and her housemate’s murder aren’t made easy by the families involved, one resisting and avoiding the police as much as possible, the other going to the other extreme, always seeking attention.

Family complications also bring challenges to work relationships among the investigating police, putting pressure on already tenuous friendships. How far should a workmate get involved in a colleague’s family difficulties?

The tensions between DC Cooper and DC Fry continue in this book. To date every one step towards resolution is followed by two steps back. Booth has now written seventeen of his Cooper and Fry series. Blind to the Bones is the 4th, still early in the sequence of events, so that tension can be maintained with a degree of justification. However, I’m hoping there will be some kind of change through subsequent books, a sustainable progression, and not a constant continuation of the same or similar attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Tastes of Fictional Characters

One thing I’m enjoying when I read Stephen Booth’s books is the occasional musical reference. It seems like his Detective Constable Ben Cooper (maybe even Booth himself?) shares my musical taste.

I think it was in Booth’s first book Black Dog* that Cooper listened to the Waterboys, and in the book I’m currently reading, Blind to the Bones, Cooper has borrowed another CD from my collection: Green Blade Rising by the Levellers.

Here’s a track from the album.

Ben Cooper poked around for a CD to play on the way back to Edendale in his Toyota. He found a recent Levellers album and was pleased by the title Green Blade Rising.

On the way out of the village, he noticed two men with a tractor and a length of rope near the pool in the river. Another man was standing in the water in PVC waders. He was already pretty well covered in duckweed as he struggled to attach the rope to one of the boards that floated on the surface of the pool.

‘Strange,’ said Cooper to himself. And he tapped his fingers to the Levellers as he drove out of Withens

 

____________________

see correction here

Blood on the Tongue, Stephen Booth

It was one of the worst sounds you could ever hear – the ticking of a clock in an empty house after its owner had died. It was a reminder that the world would carry on just the same after you had gone

blood on the tongue

This is the third book featuring DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry .

The author had this to say about his main characters in an interview not long after the release of the book:

Ben Cooper is the local lad, born and raised in the Peak District. He is from a farming background, but his father was a police sergeant, a local hero, whose mantel Ben has inherited, somewhat reluctantly. Everyone knows him, and he understands the minds of the local people. Diane Fry, on the other hand, is an outsider, who has arrived from a big city force. She is ambitious, not really interested in establishing new friendships, but in advancing her career. I suppose there is some gender role reversal, as Ben is the sensitive, intuitive one who cares about the people he comes across in his job, while Diane is much tougher and hard-edged. The relationship between the two of them surprised me a little as it developed.

In Blood on the Tongue, wartime and present day mysteries are woven together within the northern Derbyshire landscape. The “tongue” in the title is Irontongue Hill, the location of past and present tragedies.

A snowplough crew uncover the body of an unidentified man while they are clearing a mountain pass. What link is there between his murder and the crash of a Lancaster bomber during the second world war and the discovery 50 years later of a woman’s  body in sight of the plane’s remaining wreckage?

This book has a lot of elements that appeal to me: character relationships are as important as the plot development, the location is vividly portrayed and plays an important part of the story, and a strong mix of history and folklore blend with events of the present day. It is excellent story telling, increasing in complexity as the story develops, until several strands of seemingly unrelated events draw together into a logical and satisfying resolution.

I loved it.

Continuing my recent practice, I’m including this song from Bella Hardy from Edale, Derbyshire; only a few miles from the setting of the book. The images of scenery from that area are by Paul Pearson.

An interview with Stephen Booth, conducted just after the publication of Blood on the Tongue (the quote near the beginning of this post comes from the interview).
https://januarymagazine.com/profiles/sbooth.html