STEPHEN BOOTH: The Peak District as a Character

Written by Stephen Booth

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.

The original inspiration for Edendale, my fictional Derbyshire town, came while I was admiring a wonderful panorama of the Hope Valley from a location called Surprise View, above the village of Hathersage. It was the spectacular picture I had in my mind when I began to write 'Black Dog', the first novel featuring young police detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry.

But that spot also marks the boundary between the Dark Peak and the 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.

Since then, various locations have inspired each book in the series. The eerie silence of Stanton Moor and its stone circles inspired the scene of a murder in 'Dancing with the Virgins'. Winter on the Snake Pass and the remains of Second World War aircraft wrecks came together in 'Blood on the Tongue'. The desolate moors and vanished communities of Longdendale helped me create the village of Withens and the tribal Oxley family in 'Blind to the Bones'. Castleton and its underground caves are central to 'One Last Breath'. And Matlock Bath – “like the seaside, but without the sea” - is the setting for 'Scared to Live'. 

In many of those places, there’s definitely a sense of that lurking darkness beneath that surface, 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.

The Peak District appealed to me on several different levels. I was born in a similar area a little further north, and I know the people can be a little, er … quirky? They're stubborn and independent, and tend to say no more than is absolutely necessary, which makes them interesting to write about. There’s a huge range of wonderfully atmospheric locations within a small area, plus thousands of years of history - much of it visible right there in the landscape, from stone circles to abandoned lead mines. It's said to be the second most visited national park in the world, resulting from the fact that it isn't really remote, but has several cities right on the doorstep, so that everyone treats it as their back yard. One of the subjects I explore in the books is the uneasy relationship between city and countryside. Of course, there are inherent conflicts between all those millions of visitors and the people who live and work in the Peaks. It's also fairly easy to commit your murder in one of the cities and drive out into the national park to dispose of the body!

I think of the Peak District as beautiful but dangerous. It can be quite a frightening place, particularly for people unfamiliar with the hills and the unpredictable weather. The area has been responsible for many deaths.

Readers sometimes say the location is a "character" in the books. I don't think you can entirely separate location from character anyway, since we're all shaped by where we live and where we come from. For me, each book has to be set in a very specific location. It helps me to work out who the characters are, and I go to a lot of trouble to find the right places.

Over the years, I’ve found the Peak District locations have become very important to readers. A reader once wrote to me to describe what she called her "Ben Cooper Holiday", which she’d spent tracing the footsteps of one of my fictional detectives. Many readers are keen to figure out the ‘real’ location of Edendale.

Since the books sell all around the world, it means that the majority of my readers have never heard of the Peak District until they pick up one of my books. I love the fact that I'm introducing the area to those countries. One summer, a party of Norwegian readers came over to visit the locations used in my books, and they made a point of staying in the same pub where a convicted murderer holed up while he was on the run in 'One Last Breath'.

In the real world Derbyshire Constabulary deal with the kind of murder inquiries I wouldn’t dare use in my stories. Reality is stranger than fiction, and events happen in the Peak District which readers wouldn’t believe in a novel. One murder took place at a rural railway station, when a taxi driver was found dead in the boot of his cab. It was a difficult one for the police to crack, because there was almost no motive, and no prior link between victim and perpetrator. It turned out that the man responsible simply wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone, and he sought out an isolated location to choose a stranger for his victim.

But in my books, deaths happen for a reason, often as a result of catastrophic decisions, tangled relationships, a desire for revenge, or sheer despair at being unable to see any other way out.

The new Cooper and Fry novel ‘Secrets of Death’ explores an equally deadly fascination for the tourist hotspots of the Peak District. The story began with a classic ‘what if’ premise. If you’d decided to end your own life, how would you chose the way to do it, when to do it – and, most of all, where to do it?

Many people have a favourite spot they go back to time and time again for all kinds of personal reasons. Wouldn’t you choose that favourite spot for the last moments of your life, if you could? That gave me the first line of the book: ‘There’s always a right time and place to die’.

As summer approaches in the Peak District and the number of visitors increases, so does the suicide rate. DI Ben Cooper and his team from E Division CID are tasked with the problem of getting to the bottom of the epidemic of ‘suicide tourism’, not knowing where or when the next dead body might turn up. When the Major Crime Unit lose a suspect, DS Diane Fry has to convince Cooper that not all those deaths are suicide.

So in ‘Secrets of Death’ some of the best-known tourist spots become attractions for people with a much darker purpose, including Monsal Head - and even Surprise View itself. It seemed appropriate that the original inspiration for my fictional landscapes should be the scene for a death. It is, after all, the point where dark meets light, and good meets evil.

Secrets of Death published 16th June by Sphere, price £18.99 in hardback

The Murder Road is out now in paperback, price £7.99

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Stephen Booth



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