Category Archives: 2019

Fall Down Dead – Stephen Booth

 

Readers of crime fiction can’t resist a good location for a murder. Colin Dexter’s Oxford, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Ann Cleeves’ Shetland… there’s a long list of areas that people not only love to read about, but want to visit and see for themselves.

I’ve been writing about the Derbyshire Peak District for two decades now – ‘Black Dog’, the first novel featuring my police detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, was written 20 years ago, and there have been seventeen other novels in the series since. I’ve found endless inspiration in the landscape and history of an area bursting with atmospheric locations.

Over the course of 18 books, I’ve managed to create quite a detailed fictional version of Derbyshire. I think of it as a parallel universe, with a lot of similarities to the real world, but a few differences too.

What I find magical is the willingness of readers to enter into this imaginary world. I created the fictional Peak District town of Edendale for my detectives to operate from, based on several real towns I know. This gives it a sense of familiarity – so much so that a reader once wrote to me to say: “It’s years since I was there, but I do know Edendale very well.” Quite an achievement, since it really only exists in my imagination!

I soon became aware how important the setting is. Every time a new Cooper & Fry novel is published, dedicated readers will head out into the Peak District to find every location I’ve mentioned, including the fictional ones.

Apart from Edendale itself, I try to use real, identifiable places as far as possible. Since Ben Cooper was promoted to detective inspector, he’s moved out of his old flat and bought a house in the real-life village of Foolow. Readers knew they couldn’t find the street Ben lived on in Edendale, but now they can go and sit on Foolow village green and try to work out which is his house (I might have to apologise to the residents of Foolow for that one day!).

This means readers can go and explore the landscape for themselves. But I hope they take notice of how many deaths there are in my books, because this can be a dangerous place…

My latest Cooper and Fry novel ‘Fall Down Dead’ is set around one of the most iconic locations in the High Peak, the mountain of Kinder Scout. This is a strange, alien landscape of bleak peat moors which has proved treacherous for many unsuspecting visitors. It was also the scene of the Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932, an act of civil disobedience which led to the countryside access we now take for granted, and the creation of our national parks.

In ‘Fall Down Dead’, a group of walkers marking the anniversary of the trespass get lost when fog descends and stray too close to the edge of a famous waterfall, the Kinder Downfall. One of the walkers doesn’t make it back down from Kinder alive – creating a difficult case for DI Cooper and his team to investigate, with no forensic evidence and only unreliable witnesses among the rest of the walking group.

An area like the Peak District, with its dangerous beauty and sinister history, will always be an inspiration for me. And I think it will always be irresistible for readers too. But please venture onto Kinder Scout with care, and preferably in good weather!

Blood on the Stone – Jake Lynch

Imagine a country divided, with the political atmosphere soured by increasingly bitter enmities and rivalries. Street demonstrations threaten to turn violent, and propaganda is reaching fever pitch.

Perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch from our present situation. As I write this, the forthcoming European elections seem set to turn as rancorous as any in living memory.

In the setting for my novel, Blood on the Stone, a murder mystery of the Restoration, the system of political parties was just emerging. Politicians stood as supporters of either Court or Country – the latter becoming known as ‘Whigs’.

My hero, Luke Sandys, is Chief Officer of the Oxford Bailiffs, holding the ancient office of constable: the nearest contemporary equivalent of a modern-day detective. King Charles II brings the English Parliament to the city, and a prominent MP is found stabbed to death. Investigating the murder, Luke must pursue the truth in the face of determined efforts by powerful interests to apportion blame, and take the law into their own hands.

The seventeenth century was one of the most tumultuous in our history, of course: riven by economic and political upheaval, including the civil war. It also saw the rapid development of ideas, notably the ‘Scientific Revolution’, touched off by the ‘heliocentric’ theory of Nicolaus Copernicus (the earth orbiting the sun, not the other way around). Oxford became a crucible of scientific discovery, with its ‘Natural Philosophy circle’ of the 1650s giving rise to the formation of the Royal Society.

The essentials of scientific method quickly caught on, leading to demands for other domains to meet the same standards. It’s no coincidence that the divine right of kings to rule – a mystical and, by definition, unproveable claim – was discarded in England shortly after publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687.

By then, Charles was dead, and his Roman Catholic brother, James II, would shortly vacate the throne as the nobility turned against him. In the background of Blood on the Stone is the so-called Exclusion Crisis, as the House of Commons sought to prevent James from succeeding; and the ‘Popish Plot’, supposedly a Jesuit conspiracy against the sovereign. It was later exposed as fraudulent, but not before it led to a renewed crackdown against England’s remaining ‘Papists’.

In writing a detective novel set in the English Restoration, I join a growing sub-genre of recently published fiction. High on my To-Be-Read list at the moment are the latest Challoner mystery by Susanna Gregory, and The King’s Evil, Andrew Taylor’s third whodunnit set in a London recovering from the Great Fire.

In all of them, we see the struggle being waged to establish evidence, logical deduction and due process, as the basis not only for solving crimes but also, implicitly, engaging with the world and organising it to the greatest human benefit.

For much of my adult life, I took it for granted that that struggle had been definitively won. Entering the profession of journalism, my remit was to find out and report the facts. It brought me to a rewarding spell at Tyne Tees TV, as a presenter and reporter on the Network North regional news programme, from Belasis.

Now, however, the line separating facts from claims feels increasingly challenged, in news and science alike. Climate change deniers; anti-vaxxers; the proliferation of partisan channels on social media: all have become wearisomely familiar features of our public sphere.

So perhaps there is something comforting – even thrilling – in stories that lead the reader on a dance around that line, before finally resolving the outstanding questions on either side of it. For such a drama to occur in an historical period when it was first being drawn, sometimes in the teeth of fierce opposition, might even redouble the satisfaction.