The Peak District’s beauty and charm are undeniable – but the area can also be full of dangers and mystery. Especially if you live in Edendale, a place that has experienced almost as many murders as the picturesque yet doom-filled Midsomer.
Never heard of Edendale? It’s where writer Stephen Booth sets his crime novels which sell in impressive quantities. It can be as hazardous living there as in the fictional county of Midsomer where Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby has been solving dastardly crimes on television for more than 20 years.
Stephen’s 18th book featuring the double act of detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, Fall Down Dead, will appear on bookshelves in hardback next month.
His latest work showcases Stephen’s knowledge of the hidden dangers lurking in the Peak District in general and Kinder Scout in particular.
“There are lots of cases where people go out onto those hills totally unprepared, unable to read a map or a compass. They’re putting their lives in danger.
“In Fall Down Dead a party of walkers get lost on Kinder Scout in the fog and have to be rescued. One of them doesn’t make it alive. That location, as with many of my books, is absolutely central to the story. The story couldn’t happen anywhere else because the landscape is so specific and influences the way people lead their lives. I think it’s just a fascinating place to write about,” says Stephen who lives in rural Nottinghamshire with his wife Lesley.
Stephen ventured into the Peak District’s dark subterranean world for his 17th thriller Dead In The Dark which came out in paperback a couple of months ago.
The landscape has always been an integral part of Stephen’s stories, going right back to his first book, Black Dog, in 1998. He was a huge fan of crime fiction but noticed that the central character was nearly always a “world-weary, middle-aged, alcoholic loner”. He wanted to do something different.
“I decided to make my characters young and junior police officers. So Ben Cooper and Diane Fry are both in their twenties at the start of the series and they’re both detective constables, giving a different perspective on a police investigation because they’re not in charge. They’re on the bottom rung of the ladder.
“I wanted one of them to be a local boy. That’s Ben Cooper who grew up in the Peak District. He’s from a farming family and knows everybody. I wanted the other character to be an outsider from the city. So Diane comes from Birmingham and moves into Derbyshire. That gave me two very different pairs of eyes to explore the setting.
“Those two characters see the Peak District in very different ways. Really that was all I knew about them when I started to write the first book. Immediately when I began to write about them they came alive off the page. It was quite an experience that hadn’t happened to me before.
“I’d written other novels. But those two characters just seemed to take on a life of their own straight away. Everything else about them, their background, their personalities, their families – I discovered all of that as I was writing about them.
“I decided to give those two characters their freedom. They drove the story. I was very lucky that they came to me in that way.”
The pair have proved so popular that Stephen has sold two-and-a-half million books all over the world. The novels sell well in the USA and Canada and have been translated into 16 languages including Russian and Japanese.
“One of my books sold more copies in Russia than it did here just because it’s such a big market,” says Stephen. “And Scandinavia too. Although the populations are small, they read huge numbers of books in places like Sweden. They love crime fiction and my books do very well over there.”
Despite that Stephen still gets a thrill when he sees his work in print. “I think no matter how many books I published it would still feel the same. Every time I pick up a new book it’s wonderful.
“The hardback is a rare thing these days.
I know a lot of people read ebooks. In America about 95% of my sales are ebooks. But here so many readers say to me ‘I still like the feel of a proper physical book in my hand’. There’s nothing like it really.”
Stephen Booth was born in 1952 in Burnley, Lancashire. He wrote his first novel when he was 12 and knew he wanted to be a writer. But first he became a trainee teacher only to leave the profession after a terrifying spell at a big comprehensive school in Manchester.
He moved into journalism, working for the Wilmslow Advertiser and other local papers before becoming deputy editor of the Worksop Guardian.
Eventually the business changed so much that he wasn’t enjoying the job any more. So he single-mindedly set about achieving his ambition of getting a book published.
“I came home every day from work and wrote in the evenings. Every single night, religiously. I was very disciplined about it. When you have a limited amount of time to write in, it’s surprising how well it concentrates the mind.
“I produced that first Cooper and Fry novel in about four months, just writing in the evenings and a bit at weekends. It was there waiting to come out, I think. So I actually feel quite embarrassed about the fact that it takes me a year now (to write a book).”
Black Dog won an award for best British crime novel in 2001 and the follow-up, Dancing With The Virgins, picked up the same accolade.
Stephen was still a working journalist while his writing career was taking off: “I was very lucky that Black Dog did so well and my publishers loved the second book when I delivered it. I was able to give up the day job before the second book came out.
“I was really lucky to be making a living from the books straight away because lots of writers don’t. It’s very hard work. You’ve got to be dedicated and give it a priority. Lots of other things in my life had to be put aside while I concentrated on this thing that I was determined to do.”
He has this advice for budding writers: “Sometimes I hear people say ‘I haven’t got time to write’. All that means to me is that there’s something else that’s more important than writing. Rather than sitting watching TV for a couple of hours in the evening, turn the TV off and get writing.”
Strong words from the author whose fourth book Blind To The Bones won the 2003 Dagger In The Library award, presented by the Crime Writers’ Association whose membership includes writers at all stages of their careers.
One of the reasons why readers keep coming back to Stephen’s books is because of the complex relationship between Cooper and Fry.
“I like to keep the dynamics of the relationship changing: one will get promoted above the other so the relationship isn’t static. Readers get very involved in that.
“Ben is the one who readers sympathise with the most because he’s such a likeable character, has a great sense of passion and humanity. Readers get very involved in his life. On the other hand I find that for some readers Diane has become the woman they love to hate: she’s a rather more brittle, hard-edged character and some people don’t like the way she treats Ben.
“I love it when readers react to the characters as if they’re real people. They get so involved; it’s magic.”
Fall Down Dead is the last novel that Stephen is contracted to write for his current publishers. He now wants to take a breather after being committed to write a book a year for the past 18 years.
“I’ve got so many ideas for other books that I’d love to write but I haven’t had time. It’s come to a point where I think I’d like to take a break from Cooper and Fry, do something different and surprise readers a bit.
“I can’t pick up a newspaper in the morning without seeing ideas for half a dozen crime novels.”
His previous books prompted the Sunday Telegraph to call him “one of our best storytellers” while the Guardian considers him “a modern master of rural noir”. Whatever Stephen Booth does next will no doubt be sure to please readers and critics alike.