Like Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mysteries, Stephen Booth’s series featuring Ben Cooper and Diane Fry digs into the dark life of rural England. Set just to the south of Banks’ Yorkshire Dales, Cooper’s native Peaks District is also an uneasy mix of long-established families, newcomers, and a transient population that brings money and sometimes trouble to their community.
Ben Cooper is a lifelong resident of the Peaks, caught between familiarity and community and the sense that too many people know him and his family’s history. Even then, he has secrets that he hides from his neighbors, co-workers, and supervisors. Diane Fry is the new girl on the force, transferred from Birmingham after a violent incident made it difficult to stay there. The boys on the force are threatened by her, convinced that her gender will put her onto the fast track for promotion. Both are subject to depression (what the Peaks natives call “the black dog”), and it is ever at their heels.
When the Labrador belonging to a retired miner discovers a missing girl’s sneaker, Fry and Cooper – along with every other cop in the region – begin the standard search protocol. There’s something strange about the case, though: the old man is obviously holding back from the police, and the girl’s parents are giving off mixed signals about their concern for their daughter. When Laura Vernon’s body is found, those discrepancies cause more suspicion.
Answers are not forthcoming, though. A kid who worked in the family’s garden is accused by the father, and police resources are dedicated to finding evidence against him. Cooper is pulled off the case while Fry continues on the investigation, but in his off hours Cooper follows his hunches to more productive ends. Despite her distaste for unscientific police work, Fry reluctantly stays with Cooper, rescuing him more than once from both danger and professional criticism. The mixture of police procedure and instinct eventually pays off, but the result is as tragic as Laura’s death.
The puzzle is almost a backdrop to the establishment of Cooper and Fry’s characters as Booth sets them up in professional competition even as their personal similarities emerge. He doesn’t immediately throw them into a romantic relationship, but their informal partnership does put them into proximity that makes each of them aware of the possibility. These are two damaged people, though, and their black dogs keep them apart.
Booth won the Barry Award for Black Dog, and continues the series through a 12th entry released in mid-2012. Reviewers have favorably compared him to Minette Walters, Elizabeth George, and even Ruth Rendell, so for those readers who haven’t encountered Cooper and Fry, you’ve got another writer whose skill at creating atmospheric and psychologically complex mysteries stand with the best.
Check the WRL catalog for Black Dog