DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, what a treat today, when nothing could suit me better than a goodBritish detective novel--and a chance to introduce a British writer to American readers who may not be familiar with the series! I've been a fan of Stephen Booth's Cooper and Fry books since the very first one, and now there is a new book out on April 4th. The series is set in the stunning Derbyshire Peak District (where I have gotten very lost, once upon a time...) with two appealing police protagonists, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, and I have followed their stories as if they were my friends. And I'm not the only one, as Stephen will tell us!
STEPHEN BOOTH: Thank you for hosting me on Jungle Red Writers!
One of the fascinations of writing a long-running series is the complicated relationship that develops between fiction and reality.
There’s a kind of magic that happens in a reader’s imagination, isn’t there? When we’re completely gripped by a novel, we can become so absorbed in the story, so involved in the lives of the characters, that we accept the fictional world as just another form of reality.
It’s true for the writer too. After 16 novels in the Cooper and Fry series, I sometimes feel as though I’m living in strange parallel universes, moving backwards and forwards between the two like a character in the TV show Fringe.
I’ve written about Ben Cooper and Diane Fry for 18 years now, and they feel very real to me. Nothing gives me more pleasure than a reader who believes in them too.
Of the two characters, Ben has gained the most fans around the world. Readers have fallen for him because of his humanity and his sense of compassion. He cares about people, and he always tries to do the right thing. Thousands of people have become involved in his life and want to know what happens to him next. Will Ben find happiness? Will he get promotion? What name will he choose for his new cat?
I’m British, but I love the unbridled enthusiasm of American readers. A lady once emailed me from California to say:
“I think Ben Cooper is the most wonderful human being I’ve ever met!”
Another reader once sent me a message via our local bookshop. She really likes the books, and she particularly loves Ben Cooper. But she wanted me to know that she’s getting very elderly now, and she doesn’t want to die until Ben has got married and settled down. What sort of pressure is that for the author? I don’t think he even had a steady girlfriend at the time…
I write about England’s beautiful and atmospheric Peak District, and my characters work for a genuine police force, Derbyshire Constabulary. My fictional version of Derbyshire has a lot of similarities to the real county, but there are differences too.
Over the years the settings have become very important to readers. When a new book comes out in the UK, I know my readers go out into the Peak District to try to find every location I’ve mentioned – including the fictional ones.
And it comes down to the smallest detail. One of my books opens with a threatening phone call to the police, which turns out to have been made from a particular public phone box, located in the real world in a village called Wardlow. I’ve lost count of the number of readers who’ve told me they’ve travelled to Wardlow to look at that phone box. Well, it’s a nice traditional red one… but it’s just a phone box. So why is that important for readers? Well, I think it’s because that phone box is a physical connection between the real world and the fictional world they’ve been reading about. You can go and stand in exactly the same spot that Ben Cooper stood, which puts you right into the story.
Some of the emails I get from readers make me think quite hard about this complex relationship between reality and fiction. I write about real places as much as possible, but my detectives are based in a fictional town, which I call Edendale. Although it’s fictional, I know exactly where it would be on the map if it existed. This is fortunate, because I get some tough questions!
In a couple of books I’ve mentioned that Edendale has a railway station, because Cooper or Fry will occasionally drive past it on their way somewhere else. A reader wrote to me with a very pertinent query.
“If Edendale has a railway station,” he said, “where do the trains run to?”
Ah, yes. Where do the trains run to from a fictional town?
But I know where Edendale is, and I was able to answer his question:
“So there’s a (fictional) branch line which comes off here at Grindleford (a real place). It runs up the Eden Valley (which doesn’t exist), and there’s a tunnel through that hill there (the hill exists, but not the tunnel). It connects with the (real life) Buxton to Manchester line at a (fictional) junction near (real place) Doveholes.”
And my reader was perfectly happy with that answer. One day I might have to supply details of the train timetable and how long the journey takes from Edendale to Buxton, but for now the bridge between fiction and reality is holding up!
I’m aiming for what I call “the golden moment”. For many of us, there comes a moment when we’re so fully engrossed in a novel that we forget there’s a difference between the real world and the fictional one we’re reading about.
Just this week, a reader informed me she’d been telling people about an incident she thought she’d read about in a local newspaper. When no one else seemed to have heard of it, she suddenly remembered that she’d actually read about it in one of my books.
One of my novels is set around an area called Stanton Moor, a very ancient and atmospheric place full of stone circles and Neolithic burial mounds. A reader wrote to me who lives so near Stanton Moor that she can see it out of her window, and she was reading that book. She’d reached a point in the story where the police are looking for a white Ford Transit van, which has been seen near the murder scene. As she was reading, she looked up – and going past her window was – guess what - a white Ford Transit van. Her first thought was: “I wonder if that’s the one the police are looking for?” Then she remembered that outside her window was the real Derbyshire, not the fictional one. For a moment, she’d forgotten there was any distinction.
That’s a testament to the power of a reader’s imagination, and it’s part of the unique magic that happens when we’re reading a good novel. It’s such a thrill to be able to create an entire world, and the people who live there, and then invite readers to come in and share it with me. What a privilege we have as fiction writers to experience this magic.
So what about you? Do you lose yourself so completely in a good book? Have there been occasions when you’ve forgotten the difference between fiction and reality? Perhaps there are characters and a location you love so much that you’d like to be living in their world, at least for a visit?
DEBS: Stephen, I know exactly what you mean! My characters and setting seem so real to me after seventeen books that I sometime feel I'm living in two realities. It's very strange, but I wouldn't change it for anything.
Here's more about SECRETS OF DEATH:
Residents of the Peak District are used to tourists descending on its soaring hills and brooding valleys. However, this summer brings a different kind of visitor to the idyllic landscape, leaving behind bodies and secrets.
A series of suicides throws Detective Inspector Ben Cooper and his team in Derbyshire’s E Division into a race against time to find a connection to these seemingly random acts - with no way of predicting where the next body will turn up.
Meanwhile, in nearby Nottingham Detective Sergeant Diane Fry finds a key witness has vanished . . .
But what are the mysterious Secrets of Death?
And is there one victim whose fate wasn’t suicide at all?
And about Stephen: Stephen Booth is a British crime novelist. He is best known as the author of 16 novels in the Cooper and Fry series, all set in England’s beautiful and atmospheric Peak District and featuring young police detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. The series has won accolades on both sides of the Atlantic, including an Anthony nomination, two Barry Awards, and four Dagger nominations from the UK Crime Writers’ Association. Ben Cooper was a finalist for the Sherlock Award for the best detective created by a British author. The books have been translated into 16 languages, and are currently in development for a TV series.
REDS and readers, whose fictional world would you like to visit?
And Stephen, I just have to ask--who would you cast as Ben and Diane????
Oh, and Stephen will be checking in to chat, even though he is on UK time!