Today I’m pleased to welcome Stephen Booth to the blog. Stephen is the author of fifteen novels featuring detectives Cooper and Fry and the latest novel, The Murder Road, was published by Sphere on 5 May 2016.
Stephen kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Murder Road.
The story centres around the fictional Peak District hamlet of Shawhead, where there’s only one road in and one road out. A lorry delivering animal feed is found jammed under a railway bridge in the narrow lane, and there’s no sign of the driver except for a blood-stained cab. Detective Inspector Ben Cooper and his team from Derbyshire E Division arrive at the scene, but find themselves faced with more and more questions. In the nearby town of New Mills, one man may have known the answers – but it’s too late to ask him, since his body is found hanging from a walkway high above the river gorge. As the police begin to discover connections, festering wounds and a longing for vengeance are exposed in the local community. Meanwhile, things have been moving on in E Division. A new sergeant has arrived, old-school DC Gavin Murfin has embarked on a second career, and even Diane Fry has finally moved away from Derbyshire. But Ben Cooper is still torn by mixed emotions over new and old relationships. This book opens with a dramatic incident on the A6, and it still makes me nervous whenever I drive past that spot!
2. What inspired the storyline?
I did an event in the town of New Mills a few years, and one of the questions from the audience was: “This is a good place for a murder. So when are you going to set one of your novels here?” I was under a bit of an obligation! I love to write about small communities, and the more isolated they are the better. I think the issues involved, and the conflicts between people who live there are very interesting. Grudges can linger for many years, and in a small community you can’t escape each other. The hamlet of Shawhead is based on a couple of similar places in that part of Derbyshire, and they can be surprisingly difficult to reach, especially when there’s a low bridge which is likely to trap an unwary HGV driver. In this case, the location inspired the story. Similarly, when I visited New Mils and walked out onto the wonderful Millennium Walkway over the River Goyt, I saw it as a great place to find a body.
3. The Murder Road is the 15th novel to feature detectives Cooper and Fry. What do you find are the benefits and downsides to writing a series? Is the fear there that you know the characters too well or can they still surprise you?
They can certainly still surprise me! I’ve never planned the lives of Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, but try to allow them freedom to do whatever they want, even if that means them making mistakes. As a result, I constantly learn new things about them. I think this is the way it should be, because it’s how we get to know people in real life – bit by bit, not all at once. Even a friend you know very well can still take you by surprise, and that’s how I feel about Ben and Diane. These characters have really driven the series, and they keep readers coming back for more. Without them, I would never have reached 15 books (and soon 16). For me, one of the advantages of writing a series is that I already have a solid base, a platform I can launch a new book from.
4. The Murder Road, like the rest of the series is set in and around the Peak District. How important is the geographical location to you. What makes the area so inspiring?
My interest in using a strong sense of place in crime fiction goes back a long way. Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ made a deep impression on me as a child – a very dark story, with a wild, remote setting. In another story, Holmes tells Dr Watson: “The lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” So it was perhaps inevitable that I would choose a rural setting for the Cooper and Fry series. And the Peak District was the perfect choice. I think of the Peak District as beautiful, but dangerous. It can certainly be a frightening place, particularly for people unfamiliar with the hills or the unpredictable weather. It has been responsible for a lot of deaths. For me, one of its great attractions is its enormous range of atmospheric locations, where I can often sense a darkness lurking beneath that attractive surface. This may be to do with its thousands of years of history, from the ancient stone circles to abandoned lead mines, much of it visible right there in the landscape for my characters to see and touch. It’s said to be the second most visited national park in the world, because it isn’t really remote. It has several large cities on the doorstep, and those millions of visitors create a lot of conflict with the people who live and work there. Although I know the area well, the amazing thing is that I can still stumble across something I didn’t know about, which will give me an idea for a story. Then we have the Dark Peak and White Peak, the geologically contrasting halves of the Peak District which provide perfect symbolism for a crime novel, representing the dark and light, good and evil. Those sudden eruptions of black, twisted rock in the middle of a picturesque landscape constantly remind me of the darkness that lurks beneath the surface, the sinister secrets behind the attractive exterior. And that’s what I’m writing about – complex family relationships, ancient vendettas, the deepest mysteries of the human heart.
5. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
I don’t do any planning. I start with ideas – about the characters, a place, and perhaps an opening scenario with a victim about to meet their end. I write around these ideas until a story starts to develop. Because I give my characters as much freedom as possible, they’re able to go off and create the story for themselves. So I don’t know how a book will end. I find out ‘who did it’ when Ben and Diane find out. This is a much more interesting and exciting way of writing. But I’m lucky that I write about police detectives. The way I see it, it’s their job to find out what happened, not mine. They’re the detectives, and I’m just the writer. I’ve been contracted for a book a year for the past 16 years, so I can’t take longer than 12 months on each. In practice, two books tend to overlap – I’ll be editing one book while I’m already working on ideas for the next.
6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I’ve always done a lot of walking, and I like to get out into the hills for a bit of peace and quiet. The trouble is, ideas still come to me when I’m doing that, so I don’t think you ever really escape from being a writer! We live in a rural village, and it’s very peaceful anyway – almost the only traffic we get consists of tractors and the occasional horse. We also have three cats, who are wonderful for helping me to relax.
7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
Blimey, this sounds like ‘Desert Island Discs’! It would have to be something with plenty of variety that I could keep re-reading. So probably ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’. There are two volumes, but if I had to choose I’d go for ‘Volume 1: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan’.
8. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Question: What would you say to someone who doesn’t read books? Answer: To paraphrase Mark Twain, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”
Thanks very much for answering my questions and for appearing on my blog.
About the book
“Ben Cooper and his team from Derbyshire Constabulary’s E Division return in this gripping new page-turner from the master of the genre.
Ben Cooper and his team from Derbyshire Constabulary’s E Division return in this gripping new page-turner from the master of the genre.
For the Peak District hamlet of Shawhead, there’s only one road in and one road out. Its handful of residents are accustomed to being cut off from the world by snow or floods. But when a lorry delivering animal feed is found jammed in the narrow lane, with no sign of the driver except for a blood-stained cab, it’s the beginning of something much more sinister…”
The Murder Road by Stephen Booth is out now, published by Sphere, price £8.99 in paperback