Written by Stephen Booth — There have been 12 previous novels set in the Peak District of Derbyshire and featuring Detective Sergeants Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, so fans will know what to expect with Already Dead. Intuitive, off the wall Cooper has always served as a perfect counterpoint to buttoned-up, by-the-book Fry.
But not this time, because Ben Cooper is off work, sick in body and mind after the horrific death in a fire of his fiancée Liz. So Diane Fry is called to take the reins of the team Cooper has left behind in Edendale. She has been reassigned short term from the major crime team of the East Midlands Special Operations Unit, and is already tired of humdrum mobile phone thefts, house burglaries and run-of-the-mill assaults. And the weather. It is summer, but the torrential rain has hardly ever stopped falling since she returned.
Which makes the discovery of a naked man, dead in a flooded gully, all the more difficult to investigate, because most of the forensic evidence has been washed away. The victim is Glen Turner, an insurance claims adjuster who lives locally with his mother, and appears to have few friends and little in the way of hobbies. Now he’s dead, but who killed him, and what possible reason could they have for doing it?
Fry must battle with the elements, her bosses, and a glaring lack of local knowledge as she tries to solve the mystery of Turner’s demise. And with Cooper out of the picture but still somehow loitering in the shadows, she is determined to prove herself. Cooper, meanwhile, is trying to come to terms with the death of his fiancée, and appears obsessed with a man who has gone scot-free after the arson attack in which she died. Still suffering from the after effects of the fire which killed Liz, he appears a broken man – but as all crime fiction lovers know, appearances can be deceptive.
The book focuses on outsiders, with the reader looking on from a safe distance. Cooper, Fry and even the murder victim seem adrift in their own solitary bubbles, with little interest in anyone other than themselves. But no man (or woman) is an island and any decision made by one person could create a whole slew of catastrophic consequences for others. It is this intertwining of stories which makes the book so atmospheric and challenging.
Where Already Dead falls down somewhat is in the sheer volume of geographical detail contained within its covers. I’m all for giving a sense of place to a story, but at times it feels like a guide book, not a crime novel. Bad weather notwithstanding, on this showing, Cooper and Fry must be doing wonders for tourism in the Peak District and surrounding areas, but the swathes of local information intrude on the story and ultimately proves to be a distraction.
However, Booth is a master of misdirection, and it’s only when you’ve got to the end of the book that the mouth drops open and you realise just how many valuable clues you missed along the way. Placing Cooper outside the investigation is a canny move by Stephen Booth and adds something new to a long-established series where regular readers can tend to get too comfortable with the familiar characters and scenarios.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars