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by Stephen Booth
Scribner, May 2002
352 pages
ISBN: 068487301X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The Vernon family are an anomaly in the Peak District. They are very well to do, and their lifestyle is in stark contrast to the farmers and other working people of the area. Graham Vernon entertains his business contacts royally; their palatial home is cared for by gardeners and other servants. However, even the wealthy are not immune to crime. Their 15-year-old daughter, Laura, goes missing. Shortly before her disappearance, she was seen in the gardens with a young man. Have they run away together? Has she been abducted against her will?

The entire district police force goes into action to find Laura, conducting a huge search operation, looking at every nook and cranny of the village. Her body is not discovered by the police, however; her shoe is found by the dog being walked by an old man, Harry Dickinson, and the body discovered shortly thereafter. Although no one thinks that Harry had anything to do with Laura's death, he is strangely uncooperative and reticent about providing any information during his interrogation. Detective Constable Ben Cooper has a strong feeling that Harry is holding out on him, that if only he could ask the right questions, Harry would shed some light on the situation.

Ben is following in the footsteps of his beloved father, who died a hero in a mugging two years earlier. Ben is a local man and widely seen as the winning candidate for a sergeant's position. That is, until a DC from another district joins the team. Diane Fry is thoroughly ambitious, somewhat cold, but with her eye on the prize at all times. Ben and Diane are studies in opposites. Ben is intuitive and willing to follow his feelings, even if they don't make sense. Diane is supremely logical and wants to follow the book for every situation. Naturally, when they are paired on the investigation, conflict ensues. Fry and Cooper participate in the full-scale investigation together with the rest of the department. Interviews, searches, background checks, following false leads until it seems that there are no more clues to follow, they proceed nonetheless. There's some feeling that Laura's murderer may be the work of a serial killer, since there are several similarities to a recent case in another district. There are several possible suspects, but it isn't until the final 20 pages that all is revealed. What could have been a simple police procedural takes on extraordinary depth as Booth develops each of the characters. Even the minor players have more to them than meets the eye. The Vernon family has some unsavory secrets. Harry Dickinson is obviously covering up something. And both Ben and Diane are facing various personal problems. Ben is distracted by the fact that his mother is slipping into severe schizophrenia and may need to be permanently institutionalized. Indeed, Ben often feels that the "black dog" is on his back, that he is suffering from a profound depression that will never go away. In fact, he changes before our eyes from a confident, self-possessed detective to a nervous, morose and unpredictable man. Diane is very slowly recovering from an incident that happened in her previous assignment. Although she seems secure and heartless, there's more to her than meets the eye. Both she and Ben are trapped in their own self-made prisons. As the plot develops, so do the individual histories of each of the characters.

In addition to a nicely complex plot and excellent characterization, Booth excels at creating a sense of place. The setting is lovingly delineated. One can see the hills, the various homes and shops of the village, the steaming compost heap, the pub.

Booth has achieved a tour de force in this, his first outing. In fact, it is hard to believe that he is a first time author. I really could not find any area of deficiency. If I were to assign a star to each of the main writing elements of plot, characterization, pace, dialog and setting, Booth would get five stars, hands down. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, April 2001

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