Dying to Sin by Stephen Booth

dying to sinRenovation work on a derelict farm uncovers a woman’s body, buried near the house.

She had been buried several years before.
So, who was she, and why has no one missed her?

In this book DS Diane Fry’s future with the Edendale police seems to be a little tenuous when bureaucratic changes are made.

That threat to the security of her current position ought to provide a pathway to the change she’s wanted,  and a return to city policing rather than the rural setting in which she’s never felt at home. So why does she seem so unnerved about it?

Stephen Booth again blends a modern day mystery with local folklore and sets it within the harsh winter landscape of the Derbyshire peak district.

 

 

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Scared to Live by Stephen Booth

In the seventh of the Cooper and Fry series, DC Ben Cooper is involved in an investigation of the murder of the reclusive Rose Shepherd, who didn’t  legally exist.

Meanwhile, DS Dianne Fry is sent to investigate a fatal house fire that seems to have been deliberately lit, resulting in the deaths of a mother and her two sons.

A hint of international conspiracy also raises its head, but is that possibility a help or a hindrance; and which case does it involve?

Clues are accumulated and investigations hit a few dead ends until eventually the reader is hit by that “wow” or goose bump  moment when disparate pieces of the story start to fit together and the steady build up of information starts to pay off.

The who-dunnit mystery throws up several viable perpetrators, before the final revelations of guilt. The complex and baffling cases are convincingly wrapped up with the questions of who, why and how being answered.

Along the way concerns about mental illness are raised with one suspect displaying erratic behaviour after discontinuing medication, and Cooper’s family has to come to terms with the possibility of there being an hereditary aspect to their mother’s schizophrenia.

It was pleasing to see the difficult relationship Dianne Fry has with Ben Cooper starting to mellow a little. I think the constant friction between them could only go so far without testing my patience if it continued at the same level.

I enjoyed the setting of a lot of this book. A lot of the important events happen a round Matlock Bath. It’s a town I remember visiting at least twice in my childhood and I still have some memories of the town and its topography.

One of the climactic scenes centres on “The Illuminations”, a major light festival in the town featuring a parade of imaginative, light decorated row boats along the river Derwent.

My parents were on holiday in the area when this event was underway around 15 years ago, and as “foreign” tourists were invited to act as judges to determine the best decorated boat.

 

 

The Dead Place, Stephen Booth

An unidentified skeleton. Sinister phone calls. A missing office worker (probably abducted, maybe murdered). And a dead dog, shot through the heart.
All keeping the Edendale police busy in the Derbyshire peak district.
Is there a genuine crime to investigate or is someone with a death fetish playing macabre games? If there is a crime – has it been committed yet?
What is relevant and what is a distraction?

The Dead Place is the sixth in the Cooper and Fry series. Like the previous books, history, folklore and landscape each play a significant part in the story.

Both DC Cooper and DS Fry are challenged by their own experiences of death, making this case particularly difficult for Dianne Fry, as memories of an earlier case are revived.

A Daily Mail quote on the front cover says “not for the squeamish”. I suspect the warning relates to the book’s detailed descriptions of what happens to a body after death. The worst parts are not necessarily the natural results of decay, instead I found the more disturbing aspects were descriptions of the unnatural cosmetic processes used upon the dead to keep up appearances for grieving family leading up to the funeral or cremation.

Those attempts to sanitise death (due to a fear of death?) are also evident in the language used to avoid it.

Cooper knew that he’d have to face up to his own death some time. Like most people, he’d always thought he could avoid it for ever. And perhaps he’d read too many stories in which people didn’t actually die. Instead, they passed away, breathed their last, or were no more.

I’ve enjoyed all of the Cooper and Fry books I’ve read so far, but out of the six, I found this one a little less appealing; not because of it’s often grim (though fascinating) content, but because it seemed less straight forward and focused than the others. The conclusion brought loose ends together but I felt dissatisfied with the resolution of the ambiguities and uncertainties set up earlier. However, as part of an ongoing series, there are other aspects of this story that make up for that dissatisfaction.

We learn more about DS Fry’s past, and her troubled relationship with DC Cooper shows some signs (maybe temporarily) of mellowing. Ben Cooper also faces new family challenges, that are not associated with the memory of his hero father (who had been killed years earlier during his own police service).

And yet again DC Ben Cooper’s music collection stirs the pool of nostalgia.

We clearly have the same musical taste. Gloria introduced me to the Scottish band Runrig early in our friendship.

Cooper listens to the following song while driving away from an incident he was investigating.

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

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* 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)

The Hanging Valley, Peter Robinson

hanging valleyThe Hanging Valley gives a taste of both new and old.

The fourth of Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks books is the first to include a section set in Canada where the writer now lives.

While Robinson takes his protagonist into new geographical territory, away from his Yorkshire home territory, he also, at one point, slips into an old descriptive cliché, defining a woman’s appearance by reference to her “ample breasts”, an example of  the unimaginative descriptions of female characters used too commonly by male writers.

It’s not a major issue in this book, but it’s the kind of thing that I now find grating when I read it. How often does the ampleness (or otherwise) of a woman’s breasts play an indispensable plot point in fiction compared to the frequency of references to them? The extent to which it grates is probably reflected by the amount of time I’ve spent writing about a single instance in the book.

I remind myself that I’m reading something written thirty years ago, so shouldn’t judge it too harshly for featuring writing of its time. I’ll be more concerned if his more recent books continue along the same path.

It’s not hard to acknowledge the period in which they were written. Music lover Banks listens to his favourite recordings on cassette tape, and he flies to Canada on a plane where smoking is still permitted. I quite enjoy that slightly nostalgic view into a past era.

This book starts with a murder near a quiet Yorkshire village, Swainshead, and as previously mentioned the investigation takes Alan Banks to the Canadian city of Toronto. It is clear the author is familiar with both landscapes and his descriptions of Toronto are no less vivid than those of the wild Yorkshire Dales.

“Banks gave the CN Tower a miss, but he walked around the Eaton Centre, a huge shopping mall with a glass roof and a flock of sculptured Canada geese flying in to land at one end, and he visited Yonge and Dundas after dark to watch the hookers and street kids on the neon strip. He took a ferry to Ward’s Island and admired the Toronto skyline before walking along the boardwalk on the south side. Lake Ontario glittered in the sun, as vast as an ocean.”

The book also touches upon a situation I find familiar. As a childhood migrant who left England when I was old enough to remember a lot of my life there, I can identify with the nostalgic feelings of a group of ex-pat men Banks meets in a bar. Long ago I came to the same realisation of the futility of longing for places that no longer exist, or that have only ever existed in nostalgia-tainted memories.

“The longer you’re away, the more you idealize the image of home… of course, what people don’t realize is that the country’s changed beyond all recognition… We’d be foreigners there now, but to us home is still the Queen’s Christmas message, the last night of the Proms, Derby Day, a Test match at Lords, the FA Cup Final – without bloodshed – leafy lanes, a green and pleasant land. Ordered and changeless. Bloody hell, even the dark Satanic mills have some sort of  olde worlde charm for homesick expatriates”

While crime investigation is obviously central to this series of books, and I enjoy the twists and turns of the unfolding mystery, their settings in time and place are what makes them particularly interesting to me. I suppose the appeal relates at least a little to nostalgia and maybe to hints of the futile homesickness described in the quote above.

The DCI Banks Yorkshire based books are set slightly to the north of Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire, within very similar landscapes. So both Robinson’s and Booth’s series fit comfortably alongside each other. Although, when starting a new book by the other author it can take time to get used to stepping across the county border and to re-familiarise myself with the characters of that other place.

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 (2)

In a previous post about the music enjoyed by fictional characters I mentioned a Waterboys reference in Stephen Booth’s  first book Black Dog. The reference is in fact in his second book, Dancing With the Virgins.

 

‘That was the river, this is the sea’

Ben Cooper turned up the volume on his stereo and opened the cover of his Waterboys CD. He was amazed to find it dated from 1985. In fact, most of the music he possessed was the stuff he had liked twelve or fifteen years ago as a teenager.