The newspapers call them the Savages: a band of home invaders as merciless as they are stealthy. Usually they don't leave a clue. This time, they've left a body. The first victim is found sprawled on her kitchen floor, blood soaking the terracotta tiles. Before long, another corpse is discovered, dead of fright. As the toll rises, it's up to DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry to track down the killers. But the enemy isn't who they think it is. Beneath the sinister shadow of the mountain ridge called the Devil's Edge, a twisted game is in play ?
Many fans of Stephen Booth's Fry and Cooper series seem to fall into the pro or anti DS Diane Fry camp pretty firmly. Those in the anti camp may take heart from the fact that she's slightly less present in this book, not making an appearance until later in proceedings. There's also a shift in the power imbalance as Cooper has finally been promoted to the same rank of Detective Sergeant, managing his own team as part of a bigger investigation into a series of home invasions which seem to have culminated in a brutal local murder.
It's been a while since I caught back up with this excellent series, and I'm rather pleased to be back. As usual, THE DEVIL'S EDGE provides a solid police procedural plot, with the bonus of a fantastic sense of place. The Devil's Edge from the title is a rock-face looming over an enclosed, private, very English feeling village. Enclosed and private partly because of the people that populate it, and partly because of geography. The cliff edges that surround the village provide Booth with a chance to write an atmospheric tale, with some beautiful descriptive passages, the central premise of which relies heavily on that inward looking persona, and a village populated by wealthy people in enclosed properties who value their privacy. Except, of course, for the obligatory village sticky-nose. Just as this village is reticent to open itself up to the outside world of tourists and visitors, they are reluctant to completely open up to the police, despite the violent home invasion and murder that occurs in their midst. That reticence and desire for privacy plays off nicely against the idea that overhanging them all, facilitating a glimpse into their privacy for some, are the cliffs that impose.
Undoubtedly one of the great strengths of all of Booth's novels is that sense of place, and location. On the other hand, with his two main characters, he's set himself the difficult task of writing a long-term prickly relationship. In THE DEVIL'S EDGE that's somewhat relieved by Fry being stationed elsewhere for a large portion of the book, and by creating and building a team of supportive officers around Cooper. When Fry returns, however, and particularly as she has to take a hands on involvement in a case involving Cooper's own brother, there is still a little of the prickle, but there is also a sense of understanding, respect and co-operation. The only major character oddity in the entire mix is Liz - SOCO, girlfriend and finally fiancé of Ben as the book progresses. For some reason she is almost completely absent in that very traumatic Cooper family event, which just didn't make any sense whatsoever. Hopefully there's a plan to resolve that relationship because in this book, it didn't feel real. Then there's this childhood friend, widow, police officer Carol Villiers in the mix. Makes you want to get your hands on the next book asap!
THE DEAD PLACE - Stephen Booth
I like this series. I like Diane Fry. Why do I have to say that? Well Diane Fry is one of those characters that divides opinions on most of the discussion lists I belong to - you either like her or you don't (much like Elle Pascoe in the Reginald Hill Dalziel and Pascoe novels). Personally I hope that Diane Fry doesn't lose the mouth and the attitude, given what has been revealed about her in earlier books - she's perfectly entitled to be as grumpy as she damn well pleases. And that's probably the only reason that you'd want to read Stephen Booth's series in order - there is an ongoing progression of character development that helps you understand both Fry and Cooper a bit.
In THE DEAD PLACE Mr Booth has again bought that wonderful feeling of suspense and tension to a story without necessarily resorting to overt violence. His "villains" are oftentimes ordinary people who get themselves into bad positions, or are forced to extremes by circumstances. Frequently there are a lot of characters who are just a bit odd - dare we say "eccentric", sometimes they are hiding things, oftentimes they are just that - a bit odd. THE DEAD PLACE has a lot of possibilities for the head "villain", and to my mind, the interesting sort of resolution - where the villain is a victim in their own right.
Body snatching is a complicated crime to look into and Ben Cooper's main problem is initially in identifying whose skeleton is found lying pretty well unconcealed in a remote - but not untraipsed part of the forest. Whether or not this body is the "body" that the taunter sending messages to the Derbyshire Police via telephone is referring to, isn't immediately obvious but it doesn't seem so. Of course where or what The Dead Place that he refers to also isn't immediately clear, nor is why he used a funeral for cover for his initial call. Investigating a crime that may or may not have occurred, or be about to occur makes Diane's investigation just a bit complicated as well.
Beautifully complex, wonderfully atmospheric, nicely creepy but with a deftness of touch that makes it sinister without being cliched, THE DEAD PLACE is a book I've been hoarding for quite a while. I live in hope that Mr Booth will feel inclined to continue writing for a long time to come.