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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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’.
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