Despite having achieved something approaching iconic status within the confines of the Peak District National Park, Stephen Booth is a Lancastrian by birth and upbringing. Having narrowly avoided a career in teaching, he turned, like many other future novelists, to journalism. Over a period of twenty-odd years he worked on both sides of the Pennines - it takes a brave man to do that! - but he was always an aspiring novelist, and the success of his first published novel, `Black Dog' in 2000 contributed to his decision a year later to give up the day job and become a full-time writer. `Black Dog' introduced DC Ben Cooper, a rural Derbyshire lad, and his partner and part-time nemesis DS Diane Fry, burdened with a troubled past and an almost phobic aversion to the countryside.
Cooper and Fry have featured in all Stephen Booth's subsequent novels, and these have appeared at yearly intervals apart from a gap in 2008. `Dead and Buried' is the twelfth book in the series, with Cooper as a recently-promoted DS, still based in Edendale, Fry having taken a level transfer to the newly-created East Midlands Special Operations Unit - Major Crime, located in Nottingham. It's late spring; there has been little rain and another wildfire - the sixth in the Peak this year - has broken out on Oxlow Moor, not far from Edendale. A fire officer has spotted a suspicious white pickup driving away from the Light House, a recently closed pub on the edge of the moor, and a quick check reveals signs of a break-in. The building is soon to be auctioned, and the owners have requested a police examination of the scene.
Cooper decides to have a look himself, taking the opportunity to have a word with the firefighters on his way. The senior fire officer is convinced that the latest blaze was started deliberately, and takes Cooper to see the probable seat of the fire. While they talk, a firefighter working nearby discovers a rucksack, apparently deliberately buried but exposed by the erosive action of the flames. SOCOs are called in, and within a couple of hours they have unearthed a couple of good-quality anoraks, stained by what looks like blood, a dead mobile telephone and a decomposing wallet containing a credit card bearing the name David James Pearson.
Pearson and his wife had disappeared in a snowstorm a couple of years earlier. No bodies had been found, but the affair became something of a cause célèbre when it emerged that Pearson had misappropriated around two million puonds prior to his disappearance. Had the Pearsons died, or had they simply arranged to disappear before assuming new identities elsewhere? Either way, this is a case for the Major Crime Unit, and Cooper's intended visit to the Light House is forgotten - which turns out to be a pity ....
The MCU duly arrives, in the persons of DCI Mackenzie and - you've guessed it! - DS Fry. She is less than pleased to find herself back among the moors she thought she had put behind her. By this point we have all the elements necessary for an intriguing mystery, and Stephen Booth does not disappoint. All this - and much more, including a murder - has taken place before we reach page 40 of a 384-page novel, and the convoluted plot develops and unwinds intriguingly and unpredictably through the rest of the book. It would be unfair to prospective readers to disclose any further details, but the plotting is scrupulously fair; it is certainly possible to work out the solution from the clues provided, though I failed miserably and I doubt whether many readers will fare much better.
Though the characters develop as the series progresses, each book works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel and readers new to Cooper and Fry will not find themselves at a material disadvantage. Readers already familiar with the characters are also in for a treat; this instalment moves the backstory forward significantly. Further changes are in the air as the novel draws to a conclusion; long-serving DI Paul Hitchens is about to move on, DC Gavin Murfin is on the brink of retirement, and much else has come to pass, so established readers will inevitably be tempted to speculate upon what the future might hold. For my part, I hope that Diane Fry is not to be promoted to fill Paul Hitchens' shoes; the Cooper-Fry interaction is in danger of being overworked - but, of course, you may think otherwise. It's a shame we'll have to wait a year to find out!
In Amazon reviews of earlier novels, there has been some criticism of the prominence given to historic and topographical detail. It's certainly clear that Stephen Booth loves the Peak District, but to me the `local colour' simply adds to my enjoyment of the novels. I've visited the area a few times - I've hauled my kids up the hill to Peveril Castle and down into the caverns, both events being hugely enjoyed - though I can't claim to know it well, but Booth's writing so strongly evokes a sense of place that it's easy for the reader to construct a detailed mind-picture of the backdrop against which the action unfolds.
I felt that some of the books in the middle of the series didn't quite match the quality of the earliest novels, but `Dead and Buried' is up there with the best. I recommend it without hesitation and hope that you find it as enjoyable as I did.