Written by Stephen Booth — The Corpse Bridge marks the 14th outing in this Derbyshire set police procedural series featuring detective duo Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. Despite my preference for the more gritty or psychologically dark purveyors of crime fiction, this is a series that has remained firmly on my reading list. I find the experience of a new book from Stephen Booth is akin to pulling on a comfortable pair of slippers. His well crafted tales of murderous everyday Derbyshire folk are always entertaining, flecked with humour and, more importantly, expertly plotted.
Still visibly affected by events in the previous two books, DS Ben Cooper finds himself inveigled in the mystery of the Corpse Bridge. For centuries the bridge has been the route taken by mourners from outlying villages to a burial ground across the River Dove, now absorbed into the landscaped parkland of a stately home. When the landowner Earl Manby announces plans to de-consecrate the burial ground and turn it into a car park, bodies begin to appear once again on the road to the Corpse Bridge. Can they be linked to the Earl’s plans or is there a terrifying serial killer at work?
With his knowledge and manipulation of local folklore, and by setting the book around Halloween, the author heightens the feeling of sinister forces at work. Cooper knows that he must overcome his own personal demons to take control of the case, and navigate the class barriers that are fueling the local disharmony and protests. The wonderfully spiky detective Diane Fry, about to move back to the big city having been released from the chains of rural policing, is on hand to torment Cooper further. The unresolved tensions of their personal and professional relationship come to the fore.
Despite my long held affection for Booth’s novels, The Corpse Bridge has a frustratingly slow central plot line. Tension arises from Earl Manby’s suppression and abuse of the local serfs, but the development of this narrative is a little pedestrian and the outcome less than satisfying. On the plus side, the dispensing of one particular character may bring enormous cheer to someone with working class sensibilities, and the local folklore and superstitions are both central to the plot and enjoyable. Booth’s presentation of the Peak District is as heartfelt and beautifully realised as ever.
What I would focus on more is Booth’s superb characterisation of both Cooper and Fry, his police protagonists, which never fails to entertai. Having followed the peaks and troughs of their turbulent relationship for many years, I love the way that each book drives this peculiar relationship forward with a wink and a tease. I think the portrayal of Cooper’s road back from trauma, and the innate prickly, unforgiving character of Fry, are pitch perfect. Another highlight is the wry humour of this book. I may be wrong in labelling Booth a bit of a grumpy old man, but I always enjoy the little side-swipes at certain aspects of popular culture and modern living that he comes up with. They’re light relief beside the more serious issues that he addresses.
Whilst exhibiting the normal endearing characteristics of his series so far, in both the realms of location and characterisation, I think that any perceived weakness in the plot can be overlooked, although it does raise some interesting issues of class and exploitation in this rural community. Tinged with both the darkness of local folklore, and lifted by the lightness of Booth’s comic touch, The Corpse Bridge offers much to entertain new and old readers alike.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars