Stephen Booth – The Murder Road

The Murder Road: A Cooper & Fry Mystery by…

This is volume 15 of Stephen Booth’s “Cooper & Fry” series of crime novels – or, as it rather should be called at this stage, his “DI Ben Cooper” series, because the supposed other protagonist Diane Fry hardly shows up at all in this novel; she has only two (possibly three, I am not quite sure) short scenes from her point of view. On one hand, I can see why Booth has been sidelining her – you just need to skip through the reviews of previous novels in the series on Goodreads and you can’t help but notice that Cooper is by far more popular with readers, but nobody seems to like Fry much. Which, again, is understandable because she is far more unlikeable than genial local policeman Ben Cooper – she is rather prickly, keeps to herself to the point of being anti-social and makes no secret of wanting to advance in her job. All of which may not make her the nicest person to be around, but does make her a by far more interesting character than Cooper who, frankly, is a bit boring and Booth had to go to considerable trouble and introduce a major tragic event into his life to give him some colour.

After reading The Murder Road I am suspecting that Booth shares this assessment of his two main characters. All but jettisoning Fry in favour of Cooper may have seemed like a good idea to please his readers, but with Fry mostly missing from the novel, an essential element has been removed, and the resulting book seems to have taken on Cooper’s traits – in other words, I found The Murder Road rather bland. While I do not necessary read Stephen Booth’s novels for the mystery element, it still does not help the novel that the plot is rather flimsy – coincidences as well as (what I perceived as) inconsistencies abound, and I am not sure the crime is ever explained satisfactorily and plausibly. It seems like a lot of events had to align for the crime to even take place, several of which appear to be quite out of the control of its perpetrators and there definitely are one or two threads left dangling – which may very well have been intentional, to show that things are not resolved all that neatly in real life, but together with everything else one does wonder if may not have been laziness on the author’s part.

I do read Stephen Booth’s novels mainly for his descrptions of the Peak Districts and the way of live of its inhabitants as well as his realistic depiction of police procedure, and at least The Murder Road still delivers on that, so reading it was not a complete waste of time, and I will continue with the series in the hope that things will improve again. But even those parts are strangely listless, not at all like what one is used to from Booth’s earlier novels, and I had the distinct impression that his heart was not really in it and that The Murder Road was mostly phoned in.

Kim Newman: Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha

Anno Dracula - Dracula Cha Cha Cha by Kim…

After Victorian England and World War I, the third volume of Newman’s Anno Dracula series moves to Rome in 1959 and (for the appended novella) London in 1968. As usual, this installement is crammed full with open and hidden references to all kinds of pop culture, sometimes just barely managing to not bury the story under the avalanche of allusions. It always manages to claw its way out from underneath them however, and both novel and novella remain great fun to read.

They are, however, quite different in tone, which I think is due not just to the varying length and different time periods, but also because they both follow quite different templates. The general atmosphere and elements of the basic plot both appear to be based on movies – for Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha that are the over-the-top, extremely artifial horror movies of the Italian Giallo genre of the 70s, in particular those directed by Dario Argento, and for Aquarius another italian film by an Italian director, namely Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. Some readers seem not to have liked the novella as much as they did the novel, but for my part I am very impressed at how different they are from each other and how Newman manages to adapt to the divergent period styles without being too obtrusive about it – he is actually treading a very fine line here, on the one hand to match his style to the time the stories take place in, and on the other hand to keep the voice of shared protagonist Katie Reed recognisably the same in both texts. It is a testimony to Kim Newman’s quality as a writer that he pulls off this balancing act and appears to do so effortlessly.

Overall, this is nothing too deep, but a great yarn that I found very enjoyable to read – not just for the story but also for the way Kim Newman presents and handles it; there is a lot to admire there. I really need to read more by his guy, and branch out to his non-Anno Dracula novels, too.

Phyllis Ann Karr: At Amberleaf Fair

This is not your average Fantasy novel: At Amberleaf Fair contains no Chosen One and no Dark Lord, no swords and only very little sorcery, no battles are waged and no duels fought, no heroes show up and no villains, in fact there is barely any conflict at all, it takes place in a peaceful world among mostly happy people and there is far and wide no sign of that staple of fantasy novel structuring, the travelogue. In short, this brief novel is about both as un-Epic and as un-Grimdark as it gets and reads more like a cozy mystery (except there is no murder either) than a Fantasy novel.


Elizabeth Bear: Ancestral Night

Not too long ago, I was writing about a book co-written by Elizabeth Bear and bemoaning the lack of pirates therein. Now, just two months later, I am writing about her most recent novel, and you know what? It not only has pirates in it, but they’re space pirates! To paraphrase Goethe, some days one feels seriously tempted to believe that there may exist a benevolent God after all.


Patrick Gale: Notes from an Exhibition

Patrick Gale is quite a well-known author in the UK, but, as far as I can tell, appears to be mostly unknown outside of Britain. Going by Notes from an Exhibition – the first of his novels I have read – I am certain why this would be the case: While there certainly is a good amount of Britishness to the novel, it is not to a greater degree or more offensively than in, say, the Harry Potter novels – and those blatantly had no issues with being popular outside of the UK.


Rachel Aaron: Last Dragon Standing

I have been a fan of Rachel Aaron pretty much from the first page of her first book, The Spirit Thief. With Last Dragon Standing, she has released her thirteenth novel and finished her third series, and she is still going as strong as ever. It is the fifth volume in her Heartstriker series, detailing the adventures of Julius, the Nice Dragon and Marci, his human mage. It  has been quite a ride since the first novel appeared in 2014, and the conclusion this final instalment offers is nothing if not triumphant. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for Last Dragon Standing, but there will be (very slight ones) for the previous volumes of the series.


Stuart Turton: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a book in which twists and revelations play a large part; and while it undoubtedly will be great fun to re-read with the solution in mind in order to see how Stuart Turton placed all of his numerous puzzle pieces, for a first reading the less you know about what to expect, the better. The novel is an intricately crafted puzzle wrapped in a mystery story pervaded by a dense, creepy atmosphere and some elements of the supernatural or SFnal (we never really find out which). If this is something that appeals to you, I’d recommend you to skip this blog posts, skip reading any reviews of the book altogether, and, if at all possible, even avoid reading the back cover description, and instead that just grab the book and start reading. Chances are, you’ll be enjoying the experience a lot.

With that out of the way, I’m not going to hold back on spoilers in what follows, so if you have not read the novel yet, turn back now. The post will also very likely not make much sense to you unless you are somewhat familiar with the novel. You have been warned.