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by Stephen Booth
Collins Crime, April 2003
480 pages
17.99 GBP
ISBN: 0007130651

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

One small piece of advice about reading Stephen Booth would be "don't read Booth if you're really blue." That's not to say his work is depressing. The settings are often pretty bleak, there are few rays of sunshine (literal or figurative) in the gloomy Peak District where his work is set, and the crimes, and the people are often tough to deal with. He's very good writer, and in part that can be measured by his use of atmosphere (again, literal and figurative) in these books. It's just, well, at times, Blind to the Bones was tough going for me, because I wasn't in the best of spirits.

Many of the events in this book didn't baffle me near as much as they might others not familiar with English custom, but then, I hang out with a weird crowd. I have friends who get up on May Day to dance the sun up; yes, I confess, some of my good friends are Morris Dancers. So the "Border Rats" in this story, sort of the photo-negative of the hanky-waving, bell-jingling white garbed dancers make perfect sense to me. That they might be combining very old tradition with a more recent commemoration works for me too.

There are two stories here; Diane Fry is looking into a new clue regarding a young woman who disappeared 2 years ago from university and Ben has been loaned to the "Rural Crime Squad" and is helping investigate the murder of a man found out in the open. The two investigations end up in the same place and overlap.

I was a bit puzzled at Cooper's naivete; surely he knows that not everyone likes talking to the police, nor does everyone have the same sense of "civic duty" that he does. These people clearly didn't like strangers and that's not the rarest thing in the world. Ben really needs to get out more; moving away from home at age 30, he still lives in a very familiar world. Where Diane Fry benefits from getting to know people better, from learning about small villages, Ben would benefit equally from expanding his understanding of people. He's a policeman, so it's not like he doesn't know that bad things happen, but there are people who will never trust or like the authority he represents and he's got to see that.

As I read this book in sunny Seattle, I realized that the doom and gloom people often ascribe to my city means nothing compared to the Peaks District that Steven Booth writes about. Booth does love it, and I further suspect that I'd find much of it captivating and different enough (but then, I'm the American who traveling across country found the flat terrain of Kansas interesting, just because it was so very very different). Booth, as always, excels in giving a chill to the air, whether a purely physical reaction or one based on the general creepiness of the Oxleys. They're not that creepy, it turns out - they do know how to talk and communicate and they do care about the tradition of the Border Rats, which is worth tending to. Creepier than the Oxleys, to be honest, is Mrs. Renfrew, who, without question, is living with the hell of not knowing if her daughter is alive or dead, but her total lack of contact with reality - dealing with psychics, calling people endlessly, harassing people, believing that everything her daughter did was "special" and "perfect" is so disturbing that I had to hurry through her appearances in the book. Her conviction that her daughter, seemingly, would be along any minute with a perfectly good explanation - right, she just missed a trainŠtwo years ago - was felt by the police as well. You feel terribly sorry for the woman, but at the same time, you can't be around her. Very interesting character work from Booth and smart; an obviously sympathetic character who isn't.

A story that ties in closely to this one is that of Fry's sister who just disappeared one day from the foster home she shared with Diane and who's never been seen since. The complications of that event, and how it affects both police officers here add a layer to the drama.

Some of the issues in this book get resolved; others do not, and I admire that. It's just like real life, isn't it? And Booth writes a compelling reality.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, May 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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