Described as the “modern master of rural noir” (The Guardian), Stephen Booth was born in Burnley, Lancashire, in 1952. After leaving school and later graduating from the City of Birmingham Polytechnic, he tried teaching for a while in Manchester. Then, in 1974, he started work as a journalist, firstly with local newspapers and magazines in the area but also as sub-editor for the Daily Express and Guardian.
After trying his hand at writing novels, in 1999 he was shortlisted for various awards and received the Lichfield Prize for an unpublished novel, which led to him signing a contract with HarperCollins. He left his day job when debut novel Black Dog was published in 2000 and his writing career really took off. The Cooper and Fry series has brought him fame and the novels have been bestsellers around the world. Hopefully we shall soon see them both appearing on our TV screens! But we mustn’t forget Booth’s words of wisdom and inside knowledge (from when he lived on a small holding in Yorkshire) concerning the breeding of dairy goats, as he did write a book on one of the country’s oldest goat breeds, The Toggenburg. He also wrote a standalone novel, Top Hard, in 2012, which drew on his journalistic knowledge of the Miners’ Strike.
There have been 18 novels published in the Cooper and Fry series to date. The books don’t have to be read in the order in which they were published, although you’re in for a treat if you are new to the series and will have the pleasure of reading them all. My favourite Cooper and Fry novel would have to be The Corpse Bridge, with its mysterious links to past history and superstitions. The most recent book in the series, Fall Down Dead (2018), was once again set in the stunning Peak District, this time around near the famous mountain of Kinder Scout. It provides the most incredible views, but when thick fog descends in the book, for a walking party led by the enigmatic Darius Roth, the landscape turns from beauty into a death trap that claims a life. For detectives Cooper and Fry, however, something about the way Faith Matthew fell to her death suggests it was no accident, and they quickly discover more than one of the group of hikers had reason to murder their companion. The book has a good pace and superb descriptions and details about the landscape.
Stephen Booth is a UK ‘Love Libraries’ champion, and he has won many awards over the years, including the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger. He lives with his wife Lesley and three cats in a village in Nottinghamshire. His latest novel, Drowned Lives, is a standalone novel set around the dark, misty canals of Lichfield.
Philipa Coughlan: The Cooper and Fry series of crime novels has been a phenomenal success (the most recent book in the series was Fall Down Dead in 2018). Did you expect to still be writing about them some twenty years after the debut novel, Black Dog, was released?
Stephen Booth: Definitely not! Black Dog wasn’t even intended to be the start of a series. But the characters of Ben Cooper and Diane Fry took over with such determination when I was writing it that I knew there was a lot more to say about them. Even so, I couldn’t have imagined there would be 18 books in the series. It still feels a bit surreal.
PC: What makes DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry such a good team? Could the books exist if, for some reason, one of them was no longer around?
SB: They’re very different people, of course – and that was how I conceived them in the beginning. So they complement each other, with Ben providing the human insight that Diane lacks, and Diane keeping Ben from getting into too much trouble. Over the years, they’ve developed more independently and now have their own teams around them, so I think it would be possible to write a Ben Cooper novel or a Diane Fry novel. I could never kill one of them off, though. So they’ll always be around somewhere, even if I’m not writing about them.
PC: You live in the heart of Nottinghamshire, close to the wonderful Peak District, which features in so many of your books. How important is location to your inspiration for writing?
SB: Location has always been central to the Cooper & Fry series – and I’m aware how important it is for readers too. The Peak District provides endless inspiration. Even though I know the area pretty well, I can still come across a place which gives me an idea for a story. Peak Cavern in Castleton was the inspiration for One Last Breath, for example, or Kinder Scout for Fall Down Dead.
PC: You often bring the contemporary problems of rural life (closing police stations, financial hardship and drug taking) into the novels. Do you think tourists really understand the complexity of living in our wonderful countryside?
SB: Not at all. One of the subjects that interests me is the complex relationship between city and countryside. The Peak District isn’t an empty wilderness for visitors to explore, but a working landscape that has been shaped and maintained by the people who live there. Hill farming is a precarious occupation, but if farmers could no longer make a living and sheep disappeared from the hills, that landscape would change beyond recognition within 12 months. Tourists who enjoy the national park should make a point of thanking farmers, not making life more difficult for them. The rural idyll we picture has much darker aspects, and I try to bring those out in the books.
PC: With my last question in mind, you won the 2003 Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award for the author whose books have given readers most pleasure. How do you balance violence with the story and characters?
SB: In fact, I very rarely describe violence in the Cooper & Fry novels. As a reader, I’m often put off by excessive and unnecessary portrayals of violence in crime novels myself. I’m much more interested in the psychology – why a murder happens – and in the consequences. I prefer to leave readers to interpret the rest for themselves. It’s surprising how often a reader is convinced they’ve read a description of a murder in one of my books, when I’ve simply left scope for them to imagine it. Story and characters are far more important to me.
PC: Your books have been translated into 16 languages. Which is the most surprising country where you have fans?
SB: Russia and Japan have been the biggest surprises. It feels strange picking up a copy of a translation from one of those countries, because I can’t even recognise them as my own books! Russia is a big market, and one of my early Cooper & Fry novels sold more copies there than it did in the UK.
PC: Your biography says you wrote your first ‘novel’ at age 13. What was the plot and is the manuscript (if you still have it!) worth re-editing?
SB: Good grief, I’m sure it was terrible! It was science fiction, and it was about astronauts landing on a planet somewhere and meeting aliens. In my defence, I should mention that it was the 1960s, when people were going the Moon and we were all excited about the idea of space travel. I’d written a number of short stories before then (also largely SF), but found one of them turned into a novel, with chapters and a plot, and character development and so on. When I finished it, I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Fortunately, though, the manuscript has disappeared at some point over the years.
PC: Your first standalone novel, Top Hard (2012), features the incredibly named character Stones McClure and explores issues around the Miners’ Strike, which was a defining incident in Nottinghamshire affecting future generations. Did this give you a chance to explore issues from your days as a journalist?
SB: I was a local newspaper reporter during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, so I witnessed it first-hand, and it was very much a defining event which divided communities in Nottinghamshire. Top Hard was self-published a few years ago, and the story takes place in the late 1990s, more than a decade after the strike, when the pits were closing and the villages had become very run down. It turned into quite a political novel, as it’s written from the viewpoint of a character with very strong opinions, but I also think of it as a Robin Hood story in a way. The character’s name just came into my head one day and I couldn’t get rid of it. I think he forced me to write his story!
PC: Just like police stations, libraries are closing almost every week. Can we stop the decline and what are your thoughts on plans for a new city centre library in Nottingham?
SB: My local library was a lifeline to me when I was growing up. It was not only where I discovered a love of books and reading, but it gave me a great start to my early education. I don’t think I’d be where I am now, making a living as a writer, without the existence of that little branch library. So I’m very sad when I see them closing. I do a lot of library events now as an author, and the situation is very patchy in different parts of the country. Some areas are losing most of their libraries, while others, like Nottinghamshire, have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. So we know it can be done. But it often comes down to political will on the part of particular local authorities, who too often see libraries as a ‘soft target’. I think it’s very short-sighted, as a good library puts far more back into the community than it costs. I have high hopes that Nottingham can do something splendid with its new central library. It’s a UNESCO City of Literature after all – and if any city should have a wonderful flagship library, this is it.
PC: Your new novel Drowned Lives is also a standalone tale and it features a historical mystery brought out today that centres on the canals of Lichfield. Are you excited about putting this new title and ideas out there for us readers?
SB: Yes, Drowned Lives is a departure from the Cooper & Fry series – and again it’s a story that was demanding to be written. It’s all about buried family secrets, and it’s set around the city of Lichfield, which is bursting with history. Canals are a fascinating setting for crime fiction, not only because of their history, but because they run almost unseen through miles of peaceful countryside right into the heart of big cities. And they can attract all kinds of crime! I used a canal restoration project as background, because I love the idea of secrets from the past being unearthed. I really enjoyed writing this one, and I hope readers will be tempted to try something a bit different.
Our thanks to Stephen and Philipa for this excellent Q&A!
Drowned Lives by Stephen Booth
Sphere 9780751576283 hbk Aug 2019