“You can never restore the past completely” is a line from the prologue in this new standalone novel by international best-selling crime writer Stephen Booth.

It is February 1998 and Chris Buckley is back living in Litchfield, Staffordshire, in his dead parents’ home amongst memories, old clutter and a tank full of fish. His current job at Staffordshire County Council is coming to an end and he is trying to resurrect his freelance writing career.

Whilst covering a story at the local Ogley and Huddlesford Canal, which is under threat from the proposed building of a new link road, he meets Samuel Longden, an elderly man with a history of associations with the canals and who says he knows Chris and his family. But Chris is totally uninterested in family ancestry. When Samuel mentions Chris’s grandfather George Buckley and says he wants to meet Chris again because he has further information, Chris reluctantly agrees. Why he needs to know about old dead ancestors or why a family feud may have destroyed marriages and lives is a mystery to Chris, but his journalistic nose perhaps begins to twitch about a possible story.

But on the evening of the meeting, after a parcel of notes, letters and a mysterious wooden box from Samuel had been delivered to his home, Chris sits angrily in the local pub watching the old man waiting for him until Samuel sadly gives up and leaves. Little is Chris to know that he has left Samuel alone to face his death only minutes later. The following morning the police turn up at his house after the hit and run that led to Samuel’s tragic death. Chris is sucked into questions about murder, family rivalries and old rifts that are rising to the surface of the murky local canals.

Chris Buckley starts off as a pretty unlikely and unlovable hero of the novel, although his keen neighbour Rachel has eyes for the man next door and proves invaluable to later investigations. Readers keen on genealogy and tracing their own family histories will like this novel immensely and we are drawn into the tale as the shock of the old man’s death changes Chris’s view on life and those around him. Slowly, figures in the family surface such as Caroline, Samuel’s daughter, and as usual a family funeral brings much internal bitterness to the surface.

The sub-plot about Chris’s ‘project’ with friend Dan and winningbid.uk.com initially seems slightly irrelevant but throws up surprises as the story unfolds. It also shows how Chris moves on from a despairing life sucked into loneliness, low self-esteem, crazy business ideas and not facing the future into a condition of more reasoned openness. The chance to delve into his own history and that of the town and the surrounding waterways that were so integral to the Industrial Revolution when Birmingham stood at the centre of the canal system of cargo across the mining and manufacturing community begins to seep into his being.

The words of the waterways and the canals, locks and barges, are well woven by the author into the story and you can feel the murkiness of the mud and the decay of the embankments, alongside new revived interest in the waterways of Britain – see the wonderful televised canal trips by Timothy West and Prunella Scales! The past history, with families fighting and arguments and incidents over money were (and still are) all to common and there’s a hint of Peaky Blinders about the 19th and early 20th century Buckley past that Chris uncovers. The secrets and lies of Samuel’s past life will throw up all sorts of challenges to any truth that Chris may believe about his own family.

The dynamics between the characters are sometimes slow to develop but reflect reality well and the author has fleshed out past rifts between them through transcripts of letters and searches in archives and newspaper copies that are bread and butter to all genealogists these days. I liked the sleazy local MP and his less than honest entourage, who of course are more concerned about votes and power than local people’s concerns around bigger issues (i.e. the environment).

Stephen Booth’s series of crime thrillers featuring Cooper and Fry (now numbering 18) is currently under development as a TV programme, so he’s a well-established writer. Booth has a keen insight into location and scenery and lives in Nottinghamshire, so obviously knows the neighbouring area in Staffordshire very well. Litchfield is a beautiful city, well known of course for its majestic cathedral and the town and its surrounding land and waterways are just as much a vital character in the novel as the story surrounding the 200-year-old mystery which Buckley uncovers about his family.

An interesting and absorbing personal read that I enjoyed as a fan of Booth’s many other crime thrillers. I am sure book clubs will love the theme and have much to discuss and unravel about the way the history and family secrets are resolved around an intriguing central character.

Philipa Coughlan 4/4

Drowned Lives by Stephen Booth
Sphere 9780751576283 hbk Aug 2019