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.