A sense of place is as important in crime novels as the characters, and the extraordinary landscape of the Peak District permeates every sentence of Stephen Booth’s hugely-popular Cooper and Fry series. In the latest, Secrets Of Death, Booth writes about a bizarre string of suicides in the area.
When Roger Farrell is found dead by his own hand in a car overlooking the beautiful Heeley Bank, he is the latest in a long line of people who have come to the Peak District to die. Although DI Ben Cooper is reluctant to use the phrase ‘suicide tourism’, he is aware that the rate of suicides in the area is sharply increasing. And a number of them, like Farrell, are in possession of a business card that simply says The Secrets Of Death.
Is somebody ‘managing’ these suicides? And how would Cooper even define this crime? Unfortunately, the one survivor is refusing to cooperate with the police, and leads are thin on the ground. The answer may lie with Cooper’s prickly former colleague Diane Fry, who had been about to arrest Roger Farrell before his death. Can the two of them find whoever is coordinating the suicides before more people die?
Secrets Of Death is the 16th in this incredibly popular series of crime novels. Booth is a generous and engaging interviewee, and in this fascinating intel he tells us about the evolution of his characters, about ‘suicide tourism’ and his beloved Peak District — and something of an expert on the subject, he reveals the secret personalities of goats…
Tell us about Ben Cooper and Diane Fry…
I conceived these two characters as young and junior police detectives, in a reaction to all the middle-aged alcoholic loners I was reading about in crime fiction back in the 1990s. Ben Cooper is the local boy who grew in the Peak District and knows everyone. He’s from a farming family and has a real love for the area and its way of life. Diane is the outsider, a city girl and completely out of her element in a rural setting. She’s rather a damaged person who’s developed a protective shell because of what’s happened to her in the past. Ben is a character everyone loves because he has such humanity and compassion. The relationship between the two characters started off quite badly in the first book, ‘Black Dog’, and has become more and more complex ever since.
How have the characters changed since the series began?
Ben Cooper was very young and immature in the early books. But he made the break from his family and moved away from the farm, and we’ve watched him steadily mature over the course of the series. He’s been through a major personal trauma, and he’s also been promoted a couple of times so he’s now a detective inspector with responsibilities for his team. Diane Fry seemed like a high flier in the beginning and was very ambitious. But she was distracted from her ambitions (largely by her unpredictable sister Angie), and one day she realised Cooper was leaving her behind. To some extent, they’ve gone separate ways, but they both remain very conflicted over their relationship.
Secrets of Death tackles the subject of ‘suicide tourism’ – what is that?
Many people have a favourite location they like to spend time in. One day, I was looking at some benches installed at a Peak District viewpoint overlooking a stunning landscape. Each one had a plaque commemorating a deceased person who was said to have loved that particular spot. It occurred to me that if you’d decided to take your own life and you were planning it carefully, as some people do, you might choose to do it at your favourite spot and spend the last moments of your life looking at that spectacular view. That’s how I came up with the concept of ‘suicide tourism’. Ben Cooper and his team from Edendale CID are faced with a spate of such suicides. They don’t know where the next dead body will turn up, though it’s bound to be at a tourist hotspot. It isn’t doing the tourism industry much good! And of course there’s the question of whether one of those deaths wasn’t actually a suicide at all…
How much does the mysterious character of the Peak District permeate your books?
I think of the Peak District as beautiful but dangerous. It was the perfect setting for the type of book I wanted to create. I was interested in writing about a rural area, but giving my books a darker feel and dealing with serious contemporary subjects. I recall a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, in which Holmes tells Dr Watson: “There is more evil in the smiling and beautiful countryside than in the vilest alleys of London”. That pretty much sums up the idea. The Peak District is full of wonderfully atmospheric locations, along with thousands of years of history and all the legends and folklore that go with it.
I was intrigued by the two distinct geological halves of the Peak District, known as the White Peak and Dark Peak, which are very different in character. The white and dark seemed to me to symbolise good and evil, right there in the landscape. This is also one of the most visited national parks in the world because of the cities all around it, creating conflict between millions of visitors and the people who actually live and work there. Sometimes the landscape plays a physical role in my books. The hills can be very dangerous, and people sometimes disappear or meet an unexplained death. In one book, Dead and Buried, the backdrop is of raging moorland fires, which is almost like a vision of Hell.
What are your favourite locations for your novels?
There are so many fascinating and quirky places in the Peak District. One Last Breath is set around one of the my favourite locations, the small town of Castleton. It’s in limestone country and sits on top of thirteen miles of caverns, some of which are open to the public. Frankly, there’s nothing more frightening than a deep, narrow cave in complete darkness! And there are some very creepy stories about the Peak Cavern system. I also think of the ‘plague village’ of Eyam, which features in The Kill Call. It’s become a macabre tourist attraction, with people going to look at plaques listing the names of people who died there from an outbreak of bubonic plague. They even sell souvenir plastic rats in the visitor centre!
You breed pedigree dairy goats – – what kind of personalities do goats have?
Sadly, we no longer have the goats, though we did breed them for a number of years. I always found them fascinating animals. They’re very intelligent and independent-minded (unlike sheep), and they have a wicked sense of humour. They relate to people very well, and our goats always loved being taken to shows, where they had a wonderful time showing off to the public. Remarkably, they’re also more productive than cows, size for size, and their milk is much better for people who can’t take cows’ milk. I do miss not having them any more!
How did you start writing?
I started writing stories when I was very young – pretty much as soon as I could read, I think. I went on to produce my first novel when I was 12 years old. I’m sure it was quite a short novel, and it was about astronauts landing on a planet and meeting aliens (well, it was the 1960s!). But from the moment I finished it, I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Obviously, you can’t just leave school and become a novelist, so I figured out the way to earn a living by writing was to be a newspaper journalist. I did that for a long time, but I gave it up and I’ve made my living from writing crime novels for the past 16 years or so. So I suppose I’ve always been a writer.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Taking criticism is hard for a lot of writers. But I learned about it very early on. I’ve got an older brother, who read that first novel I wrote when I was 12 – and he was so disparaging about it that he remains the worst critic I’ve ever head! But I wasn’t discouraged by his harsh comments. And I think it was great experience for me to learn about taking criticism at such an early age. It doesn’t bother me now.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
There are many of them. I was a huge fan of crime fiction as a reader before I started writing the Cooper & Fry series. One of my great heroes was Ruth Rendell, who was capable of subverting the conventions of the genre. She was constantly able to come up with something new and exciting right to the end. I thought Reginald Hill was a great writer too, and I also like John Harvey, Peter Robinson – in fact anything with a really strong, believable central character.
Give me some advice about writing…
Read a lot, keep writing – and never stop!
What’s next for you?
I’m starting work on a new Cooper & Fry novel, which will be the 17th in the series. But I don’t have a title yet!
Secrets Of Death is out right now, published by Sphere in hardback.