Blood on the Tongue
by Stephen Booth
Published by HarperCollins UK
424 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Talk about coming a long way in a short time: Stephen Booth's first novel, Black Dog, reached bookstores only two years ago, and he's already racked up a Barry Award win, a Macallan Gold Dagger nomination from Britain's Crime Writers' Association and enough approbatory buzz on both sides of the Atlantic to ensure that he won't be able to enjoy any extended holidays away from his computer for years to come. The publication of Black Dog caused renowned novelist Reginald Hill (Arms and the Women) to declare, "A dark star may be born." And how fitting a remark that was, considering the tense and moody atmospherics for which Booth's police procedurals -- the third of which, Blood on the Tongue, was released this spring in the UK -- have become known.
A short, slight man with a capacious beard-wrapped grin, Booth was born in Burnley, a Pennine mill town in northwestern England's Lancashire area, and brought up in the coastal resort of Blackpool. Now 49 years old, he lives with his wife, Lesley, in Nottinghamshire. Booth spent a quarter of a century in journalism, both as a reporter and editor, before penning Black Dog. But the success of that psychological thriller and its first sequel, Dancing with the Virgins (2001), convinced him to plunge head-and-tail into full-time crime writing.
Blood on the Tongue proves the sagacity of that career change. Like its predecessors, this absorbing new work follows an odd police couple -- the congenitally empathetic Detective Constable Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry, his attractive yet designedly severe superior -- based in the East Midlands town of Edendale. With winter closing hard over their scenic region, and with many officers of "E" Division out of commission as a result, Cooper, Fry and their curious colleagues are especially taxed in trying to solve a medley of knotty puzzles: the freezing deaths of a man found on a roadside and an abused woman curled up on nearby Irontongue Hill, as well as the very cold case of a Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber that crashed into Irontongue back in 1945, killing everyone on board except for the pilot, who reportedly walked away from the wreckage ... and was never heard from again. Cooper finds himself drawn to the World War II tragedy, in large part because of Alison Morrisey, a beguiling young Canadian and the granddaughter of that missing pilot, who's come to Derbyshire determined to clear her ancestor's name. Fry is frustrated in her efforts to concentrate Cooper's attention on the modern crimes; but as it becomes evident that these various mysteries are linked, she and Cooper both search for proof that deceptions from the past have led to death in the present. Intricately plotted and teeming with singular, fully formed secondary players, Blood on the Tongue is arguably Booth's most ambitious and mature work to date -- a novel that compares favorably with those of his fellow Brits Ian Rankin and Val McDermid.
Although he's busy concocting his still-untitled fourth police procedural, Booth took time out recently to discuss with me his development as an author, the role and limits of "justice" in crime fiction, the attractions of England's Peak District, and yes, his longtime passion for goat-breeding.
J. Kingston Pierce: Is it true that the only career you ever considered in life was that of a writer? At what point did you recognize that writing was what you had to do?
Do you still have that novel you wrote as a boy?
I don't think I still have it, though there's a lot of early stuff in a filing cabinet. In fact, if I really thought I still had it, I'd be less inclined to mention it, in case somebody insisted on seeing it!
Can you at least remember what the book was about?
This novel was from my early science-fiction days, so of course it was about astronauts landing on a planet somewhere and meeting aliens. As I recall, the aliens were neither wholly benevolent nor entirely hostile to humans, but were divided among themselves. I suppose that was quite a progressive idea for a 12-year-old boy in the 1960s, when so much material was based on the concept of some kind of lurking "evil empire" that had to be fought and defeated.
Back when you were a young journalist, did you ever consider that you might one day make a good living writing fiction?
No -- and for two reasons. Firstly, I was aware of how difficult it was to break in as a first-time novelist, and how many people had the same dream (not to mention the difficulty of making a good living at it!). And secondly, for a long time I didn't think anything I wrote was good enough to be published anyway.
You spent a quarter of a century in journalism. What sorts of subjects were you covering, for the most part?
Since I worked mostly on local newspapers, I turned my hand to pretty well everything over the years. I started out as a sports reporter, specializing in rugby. But I moved into news, which meant I covered crime and met a lot of police officers. I was also a court reporter for a while, which gave me another perspective on the criminal justice system. I've investigated corrupt council members. I've written features, book and music reviews, the children's page, advertising features, and I've edited the readers' letters page. I was also production editor of a farming magazine.
What was your strangest assignment as a reporter?
I once covered an exhumation. It was just after dawn, in a rural churchyard in Yorkshire, and the scene was shrouded in mist. Very atmospheric! I never saw the body, though. In fact, I never did see a dead body in all my time in journalism.
I read someplace that you reported on the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, who killed and mutilated 20 women during the 1970s.
This isn't quite true. I was never assigned to the Yorkshire Ripper case as such. But every journalist working in that area found themselves writing about the Ripper enquiry, because it affected people's lives in so many ways for a long time.
You shared an anecdote once about how your wife thought you might actually be the Yorkshire Ripper. Tell me how in the world she came to suspect that.
First, you have to realize what an atmosphere of paranoia the case produced in the West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester areas. The police were desperate, and their main approach was to put out constant appeals to the public, in the hope that some woman would realize this man was her husband, son, boyfriend, etc. As it happened, Lesley and I were living in Manchester when the Ripper killed one of his victims in a cemetery about two miles from our home. We then moved into West Yorkshire to live near Huddersfield, and the Ripper killed another of his victims in that town. That was a bit of a coincidence! But at the time, in addition to my day job [as chief reporter for a series of local newspapers in West Yorkshire], I was working night shifts on the northern editions of a national newspaper, the Daily Express, based in Manchester. So I was leaving the day job at 5:30 p.m., driving to Manchester for the night shift, and getting home at maybe 3 o'clock in the morning. Lesley had obviously been listening to the appeals from the police, because one day she said to me: "I've only your word for it about where you're going when you go out at night and come home at 3 o'clock in the morning." She was quite right, of course -- I could have been the Yorkshire Ripper! A few weeks later, our car was stopped late one night by the Ripper Squad, but fortunately, Lesley kept her suspicions to herself. The really strange part of the story is that when they eventually caught Peter Sutcliffe, the real Yorkshire Ripper, he did look an awful lot like me!
Do you think that journalism, especially the economy of journalistic prose, prepared you for writing fiction?
Yes, that was certainly one advantage. I learned a much more direct way of writing than my previous "college style," designed to impress the reader with my knowledge and intellectual ability. In journalism, the rule is to write only what the reader will easily understand. Also, the discipline of writing every day and to a deadline has helped, as I never suffer from writer's block -- I just sit down and write something, even if it isn't very good. I've benefited from journalistic research techniques, too, such as knowing how to go about getting information. A good journalist can write about a subject he doesn't know anything about, but sound as though he does.
But don't you bristle sometimes at the necessity of having to promote yourself? That effort would seem to detract from the idea of your being an artist. It turns writing from an art form into something of a commodity.
Were you a big reader of crime fiction long before you wrote Black Dog?
What were you looking for as a novelist that made crime fiction so attractive to you?
For those readers who have not yet been introduced to your work, give me your perceptions of the two chief protagonists in your novels: detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry.
Yes, of course. It's also why she's so vulnerable underneath that hard-edged exterior. We know a lot about Diane's past from the first book, Black Dog, yet some readers do still seem to judge her rather harshly because of her attitude. I'm looking forward to exploring the depths of her character a bit more in future books and encouraging readers to understand her, even if they don't actually like her.
Cooper and Fry are a peculiar pair. They started out with the potential of becoming more than simply police colleagues. (I remember a wonderfully crafted scene in Black Dog that had Fry -- motivated less by passion than anger -- trying to seduce an inebriated Cooper.) But they've settled since into an adversarial association. Give me your take on their relationship.
Between Cooper and Fry, the former seems the least likely sort of cop; he describes himself at one point as "too bloody nice." Is his sort of detective more common in the English countryside than an American reader might suppose?
You live in the East Midlands, not far from the Peak District about which you write in these novels. But what is it about that area that you find attractive as a novelist?
Let's talk a little about Blood on the Tongue. What was your starting point or inspiration for this new novel?
Very much so. These memories are all around us, and I think it will take a few years yet for them to disappear. For people of my generation, our parents fought in the Second World War, or at least lived through it, and all the deprivations that went with it (there were still ration cards when I was a child in the 1950s). My father served in the Tank Regiment with the 8th Army, and if you listen to people like him talk about the war, you realize that it was by far the most significant thing that has ever happened to them. Many of them were only teenagers when they joined up, and yet it may have been the only time in their lives when they felt they were doing something truly important, so it's no wonder they still talk about it. They also remember that immensely powerful feeling of comradeship in the face of danger, which they might never have experienced since. On a larger scale, this country came within an inch of defeat during the Battle of Britain. Some of our cities look the way they do now because they were completely destroyed by the Germans during the early years of the war and had to be rebuilt from scratch. We're reminded of the Second World War all the time over here, not only through anniversaries and remembrance parades and all that, but every day through references by politicians, in the newspapers and on TV. Not to mention every time England plays Germany at soccer!
Blood on the Tongue finds Cooper finally moving away from his family farm, now controlled by his older brother, Matt, and into an apartment in Edendale. He's almost 30 years old. Why did it take him so long to make this change?
Yes, this gives me scope to make Edendale exactly what I want it to be, but the fictional town incorporates aspects of several real towns in and around the Peak District. Some of the villages I mention are also fictional (such as Moorhay, in Black Dog), but there are enough real places mentioned to make it possible to figure out where Edendale would be if it actually existed. Readers who know the Peak District are certainly able to identify locations in the books -- many police officers, for example, immediately recognize the "E" Division police headquarters. Ringham Moor and the stone circle in Dancing with the Virgins are also based on an actual location, which readers sometimes visit now to get the proper "feel" for the story (a practice I strongly recommend!).
So "E" Division is a product of your fertile imagination, as well?
That's right. To create "E" Division, I stretched the map a little, then stole some of the territory of the real "B" Division. As explained in Black Dog, the Derbyshire police divisions are all based in towns which start with the appropriate letter -- "A" Division covers Alfreton, "B" Division is based in Buxton, "C" in Chesterfield and "D" Division in the city of Derby. Readers often think I made that up, but it's really the way it is. So "E" Division had to be somewhere that started with "E," and so I created Edendale.
In a way, I suppose. I'm a writer whose starting point isn't plot, but character. The characters have to be fully real for me before I can even begin to write the story. The word "humanity" was first used by my U.S. publisher, Scribner, to describe my books, and I rather liked it. I'm trying to portray people with all their faults and frailties, their emotions and vulnerability. I don't think there are any real heroes in my books, or complete villains. No one is entirely innocent, and the guilty are victims themselves in their own way. There's no black and white, only shades of gray. And in the middle of all this is Ben Cooper, who has his own faults but really cares about people. Reginald Hill called him "a shining light," which I loved.
What makes a character "fully real" for you? Must you work out everything about that person's background and mode of behavior, or are you looking for some more transcendent quality?
I was lucky enough to see you speak in March at the Left Coast Crime convention, held in Portland, Oregon. And among the panels on which you appeared was one titled "What Constitutes Justice?" During that presentation, you argued that today's crime novels need not end with the incarceration or alternative punishment of wrongdoers -- a viewpoint that had half the audience up in arms, insisting that some form of "justice" was necessary in these stories. How do you explain your stand?
One of the things I most enjoy about your books is their dark, sometimes brooding character. This is so refreshingly at odds with the quaint, murder-in-the-country-house clichés that many readers continue to associate with British crime fiction. Do you think that those hoary associations have led many of today's British writers -- not only you, but Ian Rankin, Julia Wallis Martin, Minette Walters and many others -- to deliberately write "against type"? Or is there some other change in the British character that has altered the British crime story?
Actually, I don't think this darker style is new at all. People like Ruth Rendell have been writing disturbing psychological thrillers for years, but the tradition goes back much further than that. There's a lot of darkness in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, for example (his detective was a drug addict, for a start!). I've always found The Hound of the Baskervilles a dark, brooding and atmospheric book. There's one scene in which Conan Doyle describes the death of a horse as it's sucked down into a bog on Dartmoor. That's the sort of image that can stay with a reader for a long time.
Can you tell me something about your next Cooper and Fry novel?
It's a long way from completed. I'm afraid I take all the time that my publisher will allow me to write each novel, and there's an awful lot of work to do yet on the next one, which is scheduled for publication in the UK in April 2003. I gasp in admiration at authors who have the next novel already written before the previous one is published! This book involves an added complication in the lives of Ben and Diane, and a remote Peak District village where the people feel under siege.
It took me six months, writing in the evenings and at weekends.
Do you find the task of writing becoming easier, or is the complexity of each story still making your job a difficult, if satisfying one?
Each one has taken a bit longer, and the writing seems to have become harder, rather than easier. Blood on the Tongue certainly became very complex and taxed my brain a bit!
Even before you hit it big with Black Dog, you won the 1999 Lichfield Prize (awarded to the best unpublished fiction manuscript set in England's Lichfield District) for a book that has still not seen print. Was that another crime novel, or was it a mainstream work of some sort?
The book that won the Lichfield Prize is called The Only Dead Thing (I'd probably give it a different title now, as it sounds rather like John Connolly's Every Dead Thing). It's a mystery, but quite different from the Cooper/Fry series. There are no police detectives, just an ordinary guy caught up in present-day events which force him to explore his own family's past. He unearths a centuries-old feud which is still very much alive and threatens to destroy him. Along the way, I explore the fascination of tracking down your family history, while part of the background involves the unique community of "boat people" who once operated on Britain's waterways.
Where do you see yourself in the arc of your evolution as a novelist? Are there some stories you'd like to write, but don't yet feel yourself able to approach?
I'm definitely still on the learning curve. In fact, I hope I'm always on that curve, because I believe we should be learning new things right up until the moment we die. I do like to give myself a challenge or two in each book, because that's the way a writer develops, and it makes the writing more exciting. Even if I don't always succeed completely, that's OK, because that's part of the learning process, too. I don't have any great illusions about my own abilities. Blood on the Tongue stretched me quite a bit, but I'm pleased with the result. The trick will be not to try to leap ahead too quickly, but to take each book as it comes. So I think I'll just see how the next one goes.
You said earlier that, as a reporter, you covered crime and had a lot of contact with the police. Is that how you became familiar with police procedures? Or have you had to do considerable research since that time in order to get the investigative techniques and other procedures right in your stories?
How have non-police readers responded to your novels?
I love it when readers react to my characters as if they're real people, because it means that I'm achieving what I set out to do. I find that readers tend to divide between those who like Ben Cooper, and those who find Diane Fry more interesting. At one bookstore event, an argument developed between two members of the audience, who obviously fell into opposing camps! The main subject that readers talk to me about is character development -- they want to know more about the lives of Ben and Diane, and what is going to happen to them next. They have their own suggestions to make, too!
Have you noticed differences between your British fans and your U.S. readers, in terms of how they respond to your books?
I've found American readers to be very responsive and enthusiastic, and it would be true to say that the majority of the fan mail I get is from the USA. I know this sounds like a cliché, but British readers are much more reserved.
Finally, I have to ask about your goat breeding. I understand that you're the president of the Toggenburg Breeders Society. How did you get into goat breeding, and is Toggenburg a town, or does the name derive from some other source?
It's OK, I always get this question! This particular breed of goat originates in the Toggenburg Valley, in the Swiss Alps. My wife and I got interested in goat breeding when we first moved to live in the Yorkshire countryside. During the late 1970s, self-sufficiency was all the rage, and we kept a small-holding with goats, chickens, pigs, etc. Gradually, dairy goats became our main interest. The breed we chose was rather rare -- there were only about 500 purebred Toggenburgs in the UK at the time, and a lot fewer now. So we showed them, and we kept stud males to improve the breed. I was also a judge and served on the committee of the British Goat Society for a number of years. Now I'm just a figurehead for the breed, as I don't have time for anything else [but writing] (though we still have three Toggenburgs left at home).
OK, so tell me what you've learned about goats that most people wouldn't know?
Goats are actually very intelligent and relate well to people, so they can make good pets. But they are also highly productive -- they produce more milk for their size than any dairy cow, and they have a long history of association with man, being the second animal to become domesticated, after the dog. I've always been interested in myth and folklore, and it's amazing where goats crop up. It could be argued that they were responsible for the beginnings of civilization, since one of the reasons that our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors decided to settle down and create permanent settlements was so that they could keep goats. And did you know goats are credited with discovering both coffee and wine, and with inspiring an entire form of European literature? Not many species of animal can make those sort of claims! | May 2002