Stephen Booth: Black Dog

Now that I’m about to catch up on Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series (just one more novel to read left there), it’s time to look for a successor, which in this case mean a series of crime novels with a focus on British village life which is the aspect I always enjoyed most with the Merrily Watkins novels. Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry series looked promising, so I decided to give its first volume, Black Dog, a try.

Black Dog is set in an area called the Peak District which I am somewhat embarrassed to admit to never have heard before. It appears to be quite well-known though, as Wikipedia tells me it is the site of Britain’s first national park and a very picturesque place; and a brief image search at Google does indeed confirm that the scenery is beautiful. And Stephen Booth really does do the spirit of the place justice – his descriptive passages catch the beauty of the landscape and conjure vivid images of the environment.

But as this a crime novel, the depiction of scenery, however gorgeous it might be, is not really the focus of the novel which becomes clear very soon when the search after a disappeared fifteen-year old girl turns up her dead body. The search for her killer is what constitutes the plot of Black Dog, but – as in really all good crime fiction – the search for the perpetrator is not really the main focus either: That is only incidental, what drives the plot forward, a plot whose chief function, however is to cast light on the psyche of the characters entangled in it, and of the society those characters move in. This is certainly the case with Black Dog – Stephen Booth takes his time, lets us know his characters and the circumstances of their lives while the police continue with their murder investigation. This makes for a fairly slow-moving novel, at least where outright action is concerned, but the author manages even so to keep the reader’s interest invested in the book. For me at least he achieves that mainly with his depiction of the setting and its atmosphere – he makes the Peak District seem a fascinating place, peopled with farmers from long-established families, new arrivals from the nouveaux-riches and a steady stream of tourists; and in between them the policemen who have to struggle with their own problems. The events of Black Dog take place during summer, while the whole area is suffering from a heat wave, and oppressiveness of the high temperatures weighs down on the novel, made almost palpable by Stephen Booth’s writing.

Most prominent among the novel’s population are of course the series’ main characters, DCs Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, the former a native of the area, the second a new arrival from Birmingham. In a reversal of the usual gender roles it is Ben Cooper who appears as the more sensitive, beta part of the duo, while Diane Fry is an ambitious alpha careerist. I could not help the feeling that Booth is holding his cards somewhat close to his chest with those two, no doubt to facilitate further reveals about their lives in later volumes. But even so, I’m particularly impressed by the way he portrays Diane Fry and paints an excellent and unflinching picture of what it is like to be a career-conscious woman in an environment entirely dominated by males – how she is continuously moving in a minefield, has to be aware of every small gesture of her colleagues and how to interpret it, and of every small gesture of herself and how it will be interpreted. All of which has of course consequences on her character which Booth also does not shy away from (and I think that many of the readers who criticize that character for being “cold” fail to take that particular aspect into account). In comparison, Ben Cooper comes across as a bit bland but then there are many more volumes to come…

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