I first made contact with Stephen Booth a few years ago by emailing him to tell him about finding the Swedish translations of his crime novels in the bread section of my small holiday supermarket. I’m not sure why I thought he’d want to know, but I’ve since found out that Stephen has received far crazier emails than mine.
When Stephen came to the local bookshop four years ago, I decided against going to hear him speak, on account of being too busy. I later heard through one of the other regular customers, that she’d found him very creepy, so ever since, I have worried slightly about liking crime novels written by a creepy author.
There are eight books out so far, about police officers Ben Cooper and Diane Fry in Edendale. This is Stephen Booth’s fictional town in the Peak District, based on Buxton, Bakewell, Chesterfield and odd bits of other places. The series can best be described as Rural Noir, words that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but they are actually very accurate.
This June I was pleased to see that Stephen would be attending the CrimeFest in Bristol, so I emailed him and asked if he would have time to be interviewed there. The nice thing about the CrimeFest is the informal way you come across your favourite authors all the time. I encountered Stephen on the stairs on the first day, so introduced myself, and we discussed when to meet up to talk, and he was very friendly and accommodating. No creepiness in sight.
That same day I sat on a bench outside Bristol Cathedral with my M&S sandwich, when I spied a man across from me who looked a bit like Stephen. Surely it wasn’t? Do writers sit on benches in the sunshine eating their lunch like normal people? Yes, they do. He even wore the ridiculous name label thing round his neck, as he prepared to chair the next panel on hardboiled and softboiled crime writing. He’d told me that he went to few panels, as he’s heard most of it before, but he likes coming to meet friends and to talk. And he did a very creditable job of chairing the discussion, which was less about eggs than you’d think.
The crime corner of the hotel lounge is free the next morning when we meet for our chat, and I’m struck by how nice and friendly Stephen is. As I live on the edge of the Peak District, I feel right at home in Ben Cooper-land, and Buxton has been a regular haunt for family outings. I always visualise Cooper and Fry in Buxton when I read the books, because it helps to “see” the place in my mind. I’ve long wanted to know how much of Buxton there is in Edendale. “The police station is the one in Buxton”, says Stephen, but he allows for the fact that I may not have had cause to visit that particular part of the spa town. I haven’t.
He says that to be consistent in his writing he has made a map of his fictional town. He chose to make his own territory up, so “I can make it as I want it to be. People often recognise places I’m describing, even if I haven’t named them, because I’m describing a real place.”
With his first novel, Black Dog, Stephen “set out to subvert the genre” of countryside crime. Normally crime in a village is seen as cosy, and it makes you think of Agatha Christie, but “it doesn’t have to be like that; it can be much darker. A rural setting is very appropriate for a lot of crimes”. Stephen mentions the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, where Holmes tells Watson that there is more evil in the countryside than in London. There’s a “lot of truth in that. It’s kind of hidden away.” He likes the chocolate box exterior and what can be hidden behind it.
Ben Cooper grew up on a farm, and he is the son of a (dead) police sergeant, so in this respect Ben knows both the local countryside well, and he grew up with the police background. One of my favourite quotes is from the second book, Dancing With the Virgins, when Ben thinks he is about to be attacked behind a pub: “someone on the phone for you. Some daft bastard wants to know when it rained last.” Ben is the kind of man who would know the answer. “Ben Cooper was built up as the person who knows everything, and partly to create that tension between him and Diane Fry”. Diane, who is Ben’s complete opposite, is a city girl through and through.
I have always felt unconvinced by Diane Fry, and I ask Stephen if I’m wrong in feeling she’s not a real woman. He finds it interesting that I think so, because he feels Diane is very real. I say that as a man he may think she’s real, but mightn’t she be more how a man believes a woman to be? Stephen claims to get emails from women asking him how he knows what it’s like. “It’s amazing what the imagination can do, once you put yourself in their shoes”. He compares his books to other books written by men, where “it’s as if all women are the same. I see everyone as an individual. There ARE women like Diane Fry. I’ve known them.”
Diane Fry is “ a damaged person”. She’s “very vulnerable”. I ask him if Diane will ever learn to trust Ben, who to my mind is just the right kind of friend for someone like Diane. “People misunderstand each other all the time. Ben is a bit thick about these things, you know.” Ben doesn’t know what’s going on and he’s a bit naive. That’s “very true about a lot of relationships between men and women.” Stephen laughs, which is something he does a lot. His readers write in and want to know when Ben and Diane will get together. He doesn’t want that to happen, because it would change how they interact, and it would change the books.
Some people really hate Diane, and they write to Stephen telling him so. It’s “usually because of the way she treats Ben. Ben has so many fans.” Someone emailed and said “Ben Cooper is the most wonderful human being I’ve ever met.” Stephen says he likes receiving letters from fans who say they’ve hated Diane, but now they have begun to like her.
Each book has a part where you see Diane Fry in a different light. “She’s a complex character” and Stephen feels she is the more interesting of the two. Ben and Diane get equal shares in the novels, but he uses them “for different purposes”. The first five books all begin and end with Ben, which in some way makes them “Ben Cooper” books, and Stephen found he didn’t want that, so in The Dead Place he opens with Diane Fry, and ends with Ben. In Scared To Live he opens and closes with Diane, and the comments he got to that were “Oh, you’ve written a Diane Fry?”, which he says is “purely a technique”, but it “changed the perception in the mind of the reader.”
As readers we still don’t know all that has happened to Diane to make her who she is now. We are finding out very slowly some of the things in her past, and you feel amazed that she can even function at all, let alone be a good police officer, which she is. You just feel frustrated that she can’t learn to trust anyone much, and that she is always looking for an ulterior motive if someone is nice.
Ben, on the other hand, has a harder time than you’d expect from his wholesome start in life, living on a farm with his family. True, his police officer father was killed on duty, and he gets sick of being reminded of this all the time, and his mother has dementia, and he feels guilty all the time because he can’t make her life better. But he has his brother and his family close by, and he is surrounded by people and places he has always known, and he understands Derbyshire and the Peak District. As those fans point out, Ben is a very nice man.
I don’t usually spend too much time analysing the personalities of fictional characters, because they are, after all, not real. But there is something about Fry and Cooper that grabs the reader. I’m even getting quite fond of their colleague Gavin Murfin, who is a real slob, but a surprisingly endearing one, who grows on you.
It’s the “human aspects” of being a police officer that interest Stephen. His research is less to do with police procedure, because then he has to stick to it and get everything absolutely right. So he prefers to hang out with the police to get a feel for what it’s like, by listening to anecdotes, and waiting to see what they want to talk about. When they had received a new helicopter and urged him to come and look at it, he went, just so he could spend the day with them and observe.
“A lot of police officers do read the books, and they recognise the characters”, he says. He gets emails from them saying things like “all your characters work in my police station”. When Diane is feeling cold one winter, she steals a heater from another office, as keeping warm is uppermost on her mind. “That’s exactly what it’s like. It’s what we’d do”. So, as Stephen says, “one little human detail, rather than procedures.” Similarly with the canteen in Buxton, where those in power wanted to be rid of the “canteen culture”, so they installed vending machines instead. That’s worth considering next time you get annoyed with the police. They simply haven’t been fed properly. Stephen quotes some graffiti he saw on a wall in a police station recently which went something like “shortage of resources plus shortage of staff equals shit hitting the fan”. He’ll be incorporating this into a book.
When he once asked an officer about the first thing they think of, when they arrive at the scene of a murder, he expected something along the lines of securing the area, so that they don’t lose evidence. “I wonder how much overtime I can make on this one, then?” is what really goes through their minds.
Since creating his fictional police department in the Peaks, Stephen has been troubled by some reality issues which could easily have caused problems for his writing. The case of tenure, which someone came up with some years ago, suggesting that to deal with “the CID culture”, nobody could be a detective for longer than six years, before having to go back to uniform. Stephen didn’t know what this would mean for Ben, but “fortunately they dropped it. They found they had no experienced detectives!” Another issue was the idea of merging police forces, in which case “Derbyshire would have been one of the first to go”, as it’s a small force, and they were talking about an East Midlands Constabulary instead. This was something police officers talked about a lot.
Stephen is one of few really hands-on writers I’ve come across, as far as looking after his own website is concerned. He is of the opinion that it’s very important as a means to stay in touch with the readers, and it’s “so easy to do”. He gets irritated when visiting websites that have been lovingly created, only for them not to be updated very often, or ever. Stephen does updates every week at least, sometimes more often. The email link is important, and even though he now finds it hard to have time to answer all the emails, he really wants to, so does his best. Stephen points out he probably doesn’t get as many emails as JK Rowling, and if two days pass without fan mail, he gets a bit worried.
He has a discussion forum, too, which is very active in that people visit, but less so, as far as comments are concerned. He reckons people are too shy. Apart from the information on what he’s up to, which is available on the website, Stephen also does a regular newsletter, which now has 2000 subscribers.
And then there are the goats. Or, rather, the goat. “I’ve only got one left now. The other one died. I didn’t kill it, honest!” The fans write and ask about the goats. At the start of Stephen’s crime writing career his publishers on both sides of the Atlantic felt that the goats were of great interest, so probably made more of his hobby of breeding dairy pedigree goats, to make Stephen sound interestingly different.
Something else Stephen does, which amazes me, is that he sells signed books directly to his fans. But as he explains, not everyone can make it to his events, and he feels it’s an easy service to provide, once he’s got a stack of envelopes and stamps. The same goes for the photos. He laughs selfconsciously as he describes how lots of fans want a signed photo, so now he has a pile of those sitting ready to be posted, as well. The photo is most popular in Germany, Switzerland and Poland. But he has no idea what they do with it, once they get it. (A tip; the photo is free!)
I ask if Stephen gets recognised when he’s out, these days, and he does, close to home, where he often does signings or is featured in the local paper. And he gets recognised in the supermarket. More laughing. The old photo used in the books doesn’t look much like Stephen, “which I was delighted about”. He calls it his “intellectual look”.
He likes the anonymity further afield, particularly when he’s out doing research. He likes to be able to “kind of hang around”, and I suppose lurking with intent is harder if people come up asking for autographs all the time. We talk about his research for One Last Breath, where he went to Sudbury Prison, but only the outside. Stephen went and looked at the bus shelter, where the released prisoners wait to get the bus home. He was interested in the lights, or lack of, in the underpass, and “I like to notice little details” like smells.
From the newsletter I gather that Stephen travels a fair amount, and he says he goes to the US once or twice a year. In the beginning he went more often than that, in order to build up a fan base . He says there are big markets for his books outside the UK. I point out that the translations into Swedish seem to follow close on the publication of each of his novels, and is right up to date. Yes, “I don’t know how they do it so quickly, actually”. Stephen’s books sell more per capita in Sweden than in the UK, and it seems Finland is much the same. I can see that the Peak District may have much in common with the Finnish lakes landscape, and most of Finland could be a bit rural noir, if you like. His Finnish translator even required photos of the Peak District for a “Cooper and Fry landscape talk”. A few years ago Stephen was invited to the Helsinki book fair, and he says Finland is very important to him. Other big markets for Cooper and Fry are Canada, Germany and more recently, Eastern Europe.
All this success should surely mean lots of money for Stephen, so I ask. “I’m better off now than I’ve ever been in my whole life”, he says, but points out that his earlier work as a journalist wasn’t all that well paid. Stephen wrote his first novel at the age of twelve, and he wrote short stories even earlier. “As soon as I’d finished that first novel, I knew what I wanted to do.” He also knew he couldn’t just leave school and become an author, which is why he became a journalist, which was fun, but also something he had to do to pay the bills. Stephen feels he couldn’t ever give up writing, and he has many finished and unfinished novels in his drawer. He actually left his job before he had even sent in the manuscript for Black Dog, because it felt good, and had gone “like a dream”. Just the advance for Black Dog was more than the day job paid.
I wonder if Stephen is considering writing anything other than Fry and Cooper novels, and he believes it will end naturally some time, saying how it’s often very obvious when a writer has lost interest in their series. “I hope I’ll know when it happens to me.” With book number nine finished, and the tenth one to write, he feels he may almost have arrived at that point. “These days it’s all about marketing, you know”, and they expect a new Stephen Booth every year for regular sales. He feels it’s hard to turn down money.
The obvious thing for a fan to be interested in, is whether there will be a film. Both the television rights and the film rights for Black Dog sold straight away when the book was published. Each year it’s the same, with at least someone showing an interest, but Stephen feels it has happened so many times, with nothing materialising. One of his novels got a really good review in Entertainment Weekly, and “immediately the phones were red hot with these producers in Hollywood and TV people. It was ridiculous. None of them had any idea”. They sent out lots of copies of the book, but Stephen hasn’t heard any more since.
However, someone is in the “early stages of developing a TV series. Very early stages.” He thinks it’s very exciting, but realises things can still go wrong. Maybe something will happen “just as I start to write something else”, he says with a laugh. The setting in the Peak District is clearly a very attractive one, and perhaps it’s time for overseas viewers to have a new area to fall in love in. There can’t be many people left to murder in Midsomer, so it could be the turn for the Peak District instead.
I must admit here to having always visualised a young Robert Carlyle as Ben Cooper, which is probably all wrong. Stephen says he had always assumed his readers were like himself; same age and background, and he was really surprised to find he was getting emails from teenage girls. And that’s all to do with Ben. The girls will email him, saying things like “she’s not right for him, you know”, about a girlfriend for Ben. It’s for their sake that he has established himself on Facebook and MySpace. He had wondered how to reach them, and once his profile was up, he says “there they all were, my teenage fans”. He is very careful not to contact them, and is rather disturbed by messages finishing with “kiss, kiss, hug, hug.”
After his first novel Black Dog, Stephen acquired a fan in California who would email him regularly, sometimes three or four times a day, and she would sign herself “your number one fan”. This was a little too reminiscent of a Stephen King story, for Stephen’s liking. Something about an ardent fan keeping an author prisoner, cutting his feet off to stop him escaping. “Really sinister”, says Stephen, “it used to send shivers up my spine”. Then, when he was on tour in California, a woman came through the door of the bookshop with a “wild expression on her face. I just knew it was her.” He says, “she took one look at me and burst into tears.” She was soon followed by a burly, big truck driver, and “I’ve never been so relieved to see somebody’s husband in my life”. She had a cry on his shoulder, and it seems they had driven for four hours to get to the shop. It was “a bit scary”, he says.
Possibly even worse than an email about his books in the bread section of a supermarket.
And – I’m not sure about this – I think Stephen admitted to changing who the murderer is, as he writes, if he thinks it’s too obvious, too early on. That must be why I always have such a good candidate or two in mind, and then I always turn out to have been wrong.