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An Interview with STEPHEN BOOTH

Written by Tony R. Cox

You’ve been publishing novels for the last 18 years at the rate of one a year. Before 2000 you were a journalist. What was the trigger that took you from ‘news’ to novels?

As an ex-journalist yourself, I think you probably know the answer to this one! It was the rapidly deteriorating state of the regional newspaper industry. I’d worked in local papers for 25 years, and for most of that time it was a terrific job. But by the end of the 1990s I found myself trapped in a corporate world, with jobs disappearing and papers closing. At the same time, standards began to slide badly (I can definitely see the results of that now!), and I didn’t want to be stuck in a declining industry with a deteriorating product. It had been my dream from childhood to be a novelist anyway, so I was very lucky that the first Cooper & Fry novel ‘Black Dog’ did well enough to enable me to give up the day job. As it happens, my job disappeared pretty soon afterwards, so the timing was perfect!

As a reader and follower of news do you think the profession helps journalists to become writers more in 2018 than it did 20 years ago?

I think publishers have always liked working with journalists – it’s amazing how many crime novelists have a journalistic past! We come to book publishing with a professional attitude about things like deadlines and being edited. And journalists certainly used to be able to put a proper sentence together (not so much now, unfortunately). But I think ‘profile’ or ‘platform’ is becoming more important for publishers now when it comes to taking on a new author. For a crime writing course I was teaching a little while ago, I did an analysis of the most successful crime debuts from the previous two years, and it was remarkable how many first-time authors had a career in the media – but in TV and radio, not newspapers.

Ben Cooper and Diane Fry were launched quite dramatically in Black Dog, your first in the series. How has this relationship developed so that both have evolving personalities and yet the same basic hang-ups?

Over the years, things have happened to them which have provided new hang-ups to replace the old ones! Ben Cooper in particular went through a traumatic time after the events in ‘Dead and Buried’. But I’m very happy with the way Ben has developed during the series. In ‘Black Dog’ he was still very immature. Now he’s reached the rank of DI and he’s much more mature person with responsibilities. Strangely, Diane has gone in the opposite direction in some ways. She started off being aggressively ambitious, but suddenly realised one day that she’d been distracted from her career ambitions, allowing Ben to overtake her when he was promoted (I like to think the Peak District had this effect on her!). This means that the characters have evolved in their own way, and the dynamics of their relationship keep changing. I’ve never planned this, by the way – Ben and Diane have decided all this for themselves, and their characters have developed in a purely organic way.

Do you feel the need to return to their ‘collision’ in Black Dog to explain the relationship, or do you hope that readers of Dead in the Dark will have already ‘got’ the series?

In a long-running series there’s a balance to be struck between giving enough information for new readers who might come in at book 17 or 18, and not going over old ground familiar to regular followers. There have been some ongoing strands from the characters’ back stories which I’ve gradually teased out – for example, the next book, ‘Fall Down Dead’, will tackle the issue of Diane’s sister Angie, which has kept people guessing for quite a while. But if readers really want to understand the origins of the relationship between Cooper and Fry, they’re welcome to go back and start at the beginning! One reason I don’t return to that is that Ben Cooper doesn’t understand it himself - and that lack of understanding is at the heart of their relationship.


The trend for serial killers and gory murders among mainstream publishers may be fading. You have always eschewed those sides of crime fiction: why is that?

As a reader of crime fiction, those have never been the kind of books I particularly enjoyed myself, so I was never likely to write them. This is for two reasons, I think. I’ve read some excellent serial killer novels, but many of them have a level of gore and graphic violence which seems unnecessary and can be quite off-putting for many readers. For me, it works best if you let the reader imagine as much (or as little) as they want. I have a problem with the idea of violence as a form of entertainment anyway, so I rarely describe the violence in my books, but concentrate on the aftermath, the consequences – and of course the reasons for it. And that’s my other objection to serial killers. I’m interested in the psychology of murder, why people do the things they do, and what goes on in their lives to lead them to that point. And this comes down to relationships, since the vast majority of murders are committed for very human reasons, and by someone close to the victim. That’s why a real-life murder inquiry always starts with the victim’s relationships. By definition, a serial killer has no previous connection with his victims, but is killing for some twisted reasoning of his own. This takes away the most interesting aspect of murder for me – the motive!

Politics raised its head in Dead in the Dark. What has been readers’ reaction, and would you consider raising such issues again?

I try to make my books as contemporary as I can for the time they’re published, which means I’m writing a bit in the future. I was working on ‘Dead in the Dark’ about the time of the EU Referendum – and I managed to predict the result accurately, by the way! It seemed obvious to me that the Brexit vote and its consequences would be something occupying everyone’s minds in 2017, so that’s reflected in the book. One setting I used is the town of Shirebrook, where almost 50 per cent of the population is East European and there have been ongoing tensions. As you can imagine, readers’ reactions have been mixed! It’s worth remembering that every district of Derbyshire voted ‘Leave’ in the referendum, and some readers seem to feel they’re represented by characters in ‘Dead in the Dark’ because of their views. Of course, I’m only ever trying to portray believable individuals and explore current topics, not to make any political points of my own. I’ve tackled other subjects in the past such as rural poverty, the exploitation of migrant workers, and fox hunting – but Brexit seems to be uniquely contentious.

Your books have been translated into almost every language on earth – well, a fair few. Has this nudged you towards learning another language?

I’ve studied French and German in the past, and can even use a bit of Scottish Gaelic (I think I may still be the only person ever to speak Gaelic on BBC Radio Nottingham). But learning a new language becomes more difficult as you get older. I’d love to be able to read the Russian or Japanese translations of ‘Black Dog’, but realistically that’s never going to happen!

You’re a Lancastrian. What made you turn to Derbyshire, and particularly the Peak District, as setting for your books?

Yes, I was born in Burnley and grew up in Blackpool. But I fell in love with the Peak District when I was Chief Reporter on a local newspaper in Holmfirth, which is on the Yorkshire edge of the national park. When I developed the concept for a series of atmospheric crime novels set in a rural area, the Peak District was the perfect setting, not only for its huge range of atmospheric locations and thousands of years of history, but also for the inherent conflicts that come from it being one of the most visited national parks in the world, with cities like Sheffield and Manchester right on its doorstep. Also, no one else was using Derbyshire for a series at the time, so I was able to make it mine! Amazingly, I was doing some family history research very recently, trying to find out about my grandfather, who I never knew. It turns out that he wasn’t born in Lancashire at all, but in New Mills, Derbyshire (where I set one of my books ‘The Murder Road’ a few years ago). The Booth family were actually from the Glossop area in the High Peak. So maybe that’s why the Peak District drew me? It is actually ‘home’!

In a few months, number 18 in the Cooper & Fry series, Fall Down Dead, is published. Can you give us a taster?

‘Fall Down Dead’ features one of the most iconic locations in the Peak District – its highest mountain, Kinder Scout. This was the scene of the famous Mass Trespass in 1932, which led to the formation of Britain’s first national park. But it’s also one of the most atmospheric locations I could hope for – and a dangerous place in bad weather! I’ve picked up on stories about walkers going on to the hills unprepared and ill equipped, and having to be brought down by mountain rescue teams. In ‘Fall down Dead’, one member of a walking group doesn’t make it down from Kinder Scout alive, and Detective Inspector Ben Cooper is called in to I investigate when her body is found at the foot of a drop known as Kinder Downfall. It’s almost a version of a classic Golden Age mystery, with 12 suspects stranded alone on a fog-covered mountain. Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Diane Fry is going through trials of her own when she’s called to attend a disciplinary inquiry. I think readers are going to enjoy this one!

 

Fall Down Dead (Cooper & Fry 18)

ISBN: 0-7515-6761-2 / 978-0-7515-6761-8

Publisher: Sphere, August 16, 2018

 £20.00

The dramatic, gripping new Cooper & Fry crime thriller from bestseller Stephen Booth sees the stunning Peak District prove fatal for one walking party.

They knew the danger, but they went anyway...

"Almost before she'd stopped breathing, a swirl of mist snaked across her legs and settled in her hair, clutching her in its chilly embrace, hiding her body from view. It would be hours before she was found."

The mountain of Kinder Scout offers the most incredible views of the Peak District, but when thick fog descends there on a walking party led by enigmatic Darius Roth, this spectacular landscape is turned into a death trap that claims a life.

For DI Ben Cooper however, something about the way Faith Matthew fell to her death suggests it was no accident, and he quickly discovers more than one of the hikers may have had reason to murder their companion.

To make things worse, his old colleague DS Diane Fry finds herself at centre of an internal investigations storm that threatens to drag Cooper down with it.

 

'Makes high summer as terrifying as midwinter'    Val McDermid

'A modern master'    Guardian

'A first rate mystery  Sunday Telegraph

'Ingenious Plotting and richly atmospheric'    Reginald Hill

 

Stephen Booth



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