Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Stephen Booth: England's Peak District

Today I welcome Stephen Booth. A former newspaper journalist, Stephen Booth is the creator of two young British police detectives, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, who appear in 13 novels, all set in England’s beautiful and atmospheric Peak District. The Cooper and Fry series has won awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including two Barry Awards for Best British Crime Novel. Ben Cooper was nominated for a Sherlock Award for the Best Detective created by a British author, and the Crime Writers’ Association presented Stephen with the Dagger in the Library award for the “author whose books have given readers most pleasure”.

England's Peak Districk/Cooper & Fry 

"It is my belief, Watson, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." 

The words of Sherlock Holmes to Dr Watson in ‘The Copper Beeches’ sum up what I was trying to do when I decided to set my Cooper and Fry crime series in England’s Peak District. This was the UK’s first national park – on the surface, a stunning landscape which draws millions of visitors every year. But what I’m doing is turning over that surface to look for the darkness I can sense lurking underneath, the sinister secrets behind the smiling and beautiful exterior. Tangled family relationships, ancient vendettas, the deepest mysteries of the human heart.

Most of the Peak District is located in the county of Derbyshire. My series characters, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, are two young police detectives working for Derbyshire Constabulary, and they’re based in the heart of the national park.

For the kind of book I’m writing, the Peak District is a gift. It has a wide range of wonderful atmospheric locations in a small area, and it has thousands of years of history, from stately homes to stone circles, Iron Age hill forts to the remains of a lead mining industry, and lots of curious local customs. Much of that history is visible in the landscape for the characters to see and touch.

Also, the Peak District is said to be the second most visited national park in the world (beaten only by Mount Fuji in Japan). This is because it isn’t remote - it has large towns and cities right on the doorstep, whose inhabitants treat it as their backyard. Those millions of visitors create all kinds of pressures and conflicts, and the police have to deal with travelling criminals - it's easy to commit your murder in a city like Manchester or Sheffield and drive out into the Peak District to dispose of the body.

This allows me to explore the relationship between city and countryside, since they're right on top of each other here. From some parts of the national park, you can literally see the outskirts of a city creeping over the hill towards you. So I view the Peak District through the eyes of two very different characters - local boy Ben Cooper, and the city girl Diane Fry.

The other thing which fascinated me about this setting was the two distinct geological halves of the Peak District, known as the White Peak and the Dark Peak. The first is farming country, a land of gentle limestone hills, picturesque villages and wooded valleys. The other consists of expanses of bleak, empty moorland scattered with dark, twisted outcrops of rock. For me, the White Peak and Dark Peak symbolised darkness and light, good and evil, right there in the landscape. It’s no surprise that the setting has come to play such an important role in the books.

Over the years, the world of Cooper and Fry has become a detailed fictional version of Derbyshire, a parallel universe alongside our own. There are some areas where the two universes overlap, and others where fiction diverges from reality. The fact that this world has taken on an existence of its own is a testament to the magical connection that can be created between writer and reader.

My detectives operate from a fictional town, which I call Edendale. It bears a resemblance to several real places, which creates an air of familiarity for readers who know the area. A lady once wrote to tell me that she knew Edendale very well, although it was years since she’d been there! That was when I was struck by the ability of readers to slip back and forth between reality and fiction purely by the power of their own imagination.

Specific details of time and place help to make this happen. The locations for each book are important, and they come to me in two ways. Sometimes the landscape inspires a story – such as when I stumbled across aircraft wreckage from World War Two while walking on the moors above the Snake Pass and began to develop the themes of BLOOD ON THE TONGUE. At other times I have an idea for a story, but need to find exactly the right location.

Whenever a new book is published, I know readers will head out into the Peak District to find the places I’ve mentioned. Some travel from other countries to do this. I recall a group of Norwegians who’d been reading ONE LAST BREATH and decided to visit the central location, the town of Castleton. Not only that, but they had to book themselves into the Cheshire Cheese pub – because that was where the convicted murder stayed when he was on the run in ONE LAST BREATH.

This fascination comes down to the smallest detail. Book #6 THE DEAD PLACE opens with a threatening phone call made to the police, which turns out to have been made from a public phone box in the village of Wardlow. Many readers tell me they’ve travelled out to Wardlow – just to look at the phone box! So why is that important for readers? Well, I think it’s because they’re looking at a physical connection between the real world and the fictional world they’ve been reading about. They can go and stand in the same spot where Ben Cooper stood in THE DEAD PLACE.

One big advantage in my choice of setting is that the Peak District is full of quirky, distinctive locations, and I try to use a different one each time. For the 7th Cooper & Fry novel SCARED TO LIVE I chose a village called Matlock Bath, a former spa town where Victorians flocked for the health-giving properties of the water. Now, its atmosphere is like that of a British coastal holiday resort. Its ‘promenade’ is lined with cafes and amusement arcades, and the smell of fish and chips hangs over the village like a cloud. On weekends, bikers line the main street admiring each other’s machines. But there’s never any trouble from them, because when they remove their helmets you can see these bikers are all grey-haired or bald. They’re what we call Hell’s Granddads, the 50 and 60-somethings whose midlife crisis involves the purchase of a powerful motorbike! But Matlock Bath is about as far from the coast as you can get in the north of England, and the promenade overlooks only the River Derwent. As one of the characters in the book says, this is “like the seaside but without the sea”. Discovering a unique location like this is one of the joys of writing about the Peak District.

The story for SCARED TO LIVE came from one of those random thoughts which cross a crime writer’s mind. One day, I was musing that people seem to die when they’re least expecting it. You know the sort of thing – you might be busy planning next year’s vacation, but you get knocked down by a truck crossing the road, and the vacation never happens. Then I used the writer’s technique of ‘what if’. I asked myself “What if there was someone who expected to be killed at any moment? How would that person live their life? And what might have happened in the past to put them in that position?” Out of that thought came the reclusive Rose Shepherd, a woman who can’t sleep at night, but whose life seems to be a blank when the police are called in to investigate her death.

What I’m trying to do in these books is create credible characters who live in a believable world. I want you to feel that you could go into a police station in Derbyshire and meet Detective Constable Ben Cooper (if you ever do, please say ‘hello’ from me!). There’s something I refer to as the 'golden moment' – those few seconds when a reader isn’t quite sure whether they're in the real world or the fictional world, an instant when they’ve become so deeply engaged in a story that they forget there’s any difference between the two.

If I can create that moment for a reader, I'm achieving what I set to do. And that’s the magic of fiction...


Unknown said...

So true about going to specific places that are mentiond in your books to see the remote farms, the craggy edges and the isolated pubs all come to mind. I can well imagine Ben driving around the country lanes, knowing them all like the back of his hand. I live in derby and always treat the peak as my back yard on a day off. I am 50 with a motor bike and love going to Matlock bath for fish chips and a coffee. Waiting eagerly for the corpse bridge. Keep them coming stephen.

vallery said...

Stephen used to be a regular at LCC. Haven't seen him in a few years. It's time he returned. an I enjoy his books.

Liz Inwood said...

Many thanks for your wonderful books. Have loved "Devil's Edge", as we walk in that area regularly, and know it well! Immediately recognised the guide stoop spellings! And "Already Dead" inspired us to visit the National Stone Centre. If you read this, Stephen, have you explored the possibilities of Lumsdale?