Blood on the Tongue

by Stephen Booth

Published by HarperCollins UK

424 pages, 2002

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"For one thing, I want my books to earn me a living, so I'm realistic about the fact that this is a business and has to be approached as such, including the marketing. But mostly my aim is to communicate with the reader and set up some kind of understanding between us, and I think going out and meeting those readers, talking about the books and getting their feedback is a useful part of that process."















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?

Stephen Booth: Well, I did realize I might have to make my living some other way -- writers being notoriously poverty-stricken! But from a very early age, I knew that writing was the only thing I really wanted to do. I wrote my first novel when I was about 12 years old, and from then on I dreamed of being a novelist. Journalism was an alternative way of earning a living from writing. But after a while, I was promoted to be an editor and found I wasn't writing as part of the job any more. I still had to write, so that energy was directed more and more into producing the novels.

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.

What one thing would you most like to have known when you were just starting out as a novelist, but that you didn't learn until later on?

I think I was lucky that I did a lot of the right things at the start without knowing it. For example, I got myself an agent first, which turned out to be my big break and made a huge difference to my initial success. Also, before my first book was published, I learned an awful lot by listening to what other authors had to say about the business. So I already knew that I would have to work hard at marketing and promoting myself, rather than sitting back and expecting my publishers to do it all. That was a very good lesson to learn early on.

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.

Well, I don't actually think of myself as an artist, or of my writing as an art form. A craft, maybe. I'm not writing just for the sake of it. For one thing, I want my books to earn me a living, so I'm realistic about the fact that this is a business and has to be approached as such, including the marketing. But mostly my aim is to communicate with the reader and set up some kind of understanding between us, and I think going out and meeting those readers, talking about the books and getting their feedback is a useful part of that process. Of course, I want as many people as possible to read my books -- and who better than me to tell them why they should? I actually rather enjoy the promotion side, especially as the writing itself is a such a solitary occupation.

Were you a big reader of crime fiction long before you wrote Black Dog?

I read very widely as a child and through my teens, and crime fiction was certainly one genre I enjoyed. I suppose I was raised on classic British writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. So crime fiction was a natural genre for me to write in. However, something else I enjoyed was science fiction, and there were some earlier stories of mine which belonged more to the paranormal thriller genre, until I progressed into writing straight crime fiction.

What were you looking for as a novelist that made crime fiction so attractive to you?

I think crime fiction is currently the most vibrant and wide-ranging genre available to a writer. We have tremendous freedom to write about any subject we're interested in, while maintaining a narrative drive and making it entertaining for the reader. For me, writing about police detectives is particularly useful, as it gives me an excuse to explore the hidden depths of my characters' lives. During an investigation into a major crime, all the stones are turned over and dark secrets revealed, and entirely innocent people can be drawn in (as almost happened to me in the Yorkshire Ripper case!).

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.

Ben Cooper is the local lad, born and raised in the Peak District. He is from a farming background, but his father was a police sergeant, a local hero, whose mantel Ben has inherited, somewhat reluctantly. Everyone knows him, and he understands the minds of the local people. Diane Fry, on the other hand, is an outsider, who has arrived from a big city force. She is ambitious, not really interested in establishing new friendships, but in advancing her career. I suppose there is some gender role reversal, as Ben is the sensitive, intuitive one who cares about the people he comes across in his job, while Diane is much tougher and hard-edged. The relationship between the two of them surprised me a little as it developed.

Can Diane's hard edge not be attributed, at least in part, to her difficult childhood? She and her sister, Angie, were taken into foster care after allegations of child abuse were spread against their parents. And then Angie became a heroin addict and disappeared. Surely, those things have influenced Diane's psychological make-up.

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.

Well, both aspects to their relationship were always there from the start, I think. They were immediate rivals for promotion -- Diane saw Ben as a threat and had to prove that she was better than him. There was always an attraction, too, but it was subdued at the beginning. Diane rather despised Ben as long as he accepted her treatment of him, but as soon as he turned and showed his mettle, it sparked something in her. Diane is very vulnerable underneath that hard exterior, and Ben is the only one who gets under her armor. So while she is attracted to him, she resents him for it, too. The "seduction" incident makes their subsequent relationship even more difficult. But in each book, there are moments when Diane's defenses are breached. That's often the way relationships are -- complicated, and full of misunderstandings and a lack of communication. It's fascinating for me, as I don't really know which way they're going to go next.

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?

Yes, I think so. We do still have the remnants of the tradition of the friendly British bobby (who is still unarmed, of course). There are some of these in the cities, too, but fewer. And being too nice is probably a bar to promotion to the senior ranks.

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?

The Peak District is a beautiful area, but it also has a lot of inherent tensions and conflicts. It was the UK's first national park [created in 1951] and it attracts nearly 30 million visitors a year -- making it the second most visited national park in the world (after Mount Fuji in Japan). Yet it is a small area and much of it is populated by small towns, villages and farms, where the local people face a constant influx of visitors and everything that goes with them, like traffic and crime. There are several big cities nearby, and there is always that old antagonism between the villagers and "incomers" from the cities. Some of the remoter areas are favorite places for dumping murder victims, and people die in all sorts of mysterious ways out there. I also love the vast store of history (all 3,000 years and more of it), legends and folklore that is there in the Peak District for a writer like me to call on. Some of the stone circles and other megalithic sites are deeply atmospheric. And there is even an irresistible symbolism in the fact that the Peak District is divided into two contrasting geological areas called the White Peak and the Dark Peak. For me, they represent good and evil, of course.

Let's talk a little about Blood on the Tongue. What was your starting point or inspiration for this new novel?

I came across a book about aircraft wrecks in the Peak District and the men who died in them. I was particularly fascinated by the details of the lives of the airmen involved. I found that many of the men who died were not British, but American, Canadian, Australian, etc. And, of course, there were many Polish airmen. That created the link with the Polish communities which still exist in this area. I wanted to set this particular book in the winter (there's a seasonal cycle in the series), and I discovered that January was the time the Polish communities have their oplatek celebration, the time of reconciliation and forgiveness. The two subjects seemed to fit naturally together -- which was one of those moments that encourage me to think fate might actually be on my side now and then.

Much of this book centers on a military airplane crash during World War II. Were there many such crashes around the Peak District, and did you do research into some of those incidents before sitting down to compose Blood on the Tongue?

There were more than 50, mostly in the Dark Peak area, on the higher ground. I visited some of the locations and was surprised how much wreckage still survives on the moors after so many years. I also read very widely around the subject to get a feel for the background, and I visited some aviation museums. I was lucky enough to get a ride around an airfield on one of the surviving RAF Lancaster bombers. This gave me the chance to see the inside of the aircraft from the point of view of the air crew. I sat at the controls, in the navigator's position, and in the tail gunner's turret -- all the positions in which the men died in the incident described in Blood on the Tongue. That was kind of eerie, but it really helped to feed my imagination.

I was struck, while reading your latest novel, by the emotional connection that even modern-day Brits have with the last world war. Certainly, much of the action in that conflict took place on your soil, and even people who weren't alive at the time have since been steeped in war stories from that era. More than half a century later, it seems to me that the pains and triumphs (and maybe even the prejudices) of World War II still resonate through the British character. Do you agree?

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!

Closer to home, the area I now live in -- Nottinghamshire -- was full of wartime RAF bases, and the remains of airfields are everywhere, though many of them are converted to other uses now, of course. The property we own is part of a very large house, which was used for billeting airmen during the war. When we moved in, there were two derelict rooms on the top floor which hadn't been used since 1945. One of them still had the names of six men pinned to the door -- the airmen who had slept in that room. One day, two old men walked up our driveway to look at the house. It turned out that they were two former airmen who had been billeted in that very room. So you see, there's no escape from the past here.

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?

I tend to think Ben is rather immature for his age (but then, I've known lots of men like that). The other important factor is the question of family ties. It's perfectly normal in this kind of traditional farming family for several generations to live together. Sometimes, a son might marry and live with his own family in a smaller house on the farm. The other factor is that Ben is very close to his mother and feels it's his responsibility to look after her in some way, or at least to be there for her. It's only after his mother goes into a nursing home that he finally feels able to move away from the farm. Until then, he would have felt too much guilt. Funnily enough, I've noticed that it also seems to be a common characteristic among serial killers that they are close to their mothers!

Naturally, when I began reading your work, I tried to locate Edendale on a map, only to discover that it doesn't exist. I presume you set your stories in a fictional town to give yourself as much storytelling leeway as possible.

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.

You have said elsewhere that what distinguishes your novels from other crime fiction is their "humanity." What do you mean by that? Are you trying to say that you strive to write more realistic fiction?

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 don't need to know everything, though I often discover new things about them as I write. But I do have to feel that I know the person. In real life, it's possible to know someone quite well without having all the details of their background. If you think about your friends or work colleagues, you can predict how they might behave or what they might say in certain circumstances, without needing to know that they had a broken childhood or an alcoholic father or whatever, though these things might explain why their personalities have developed in that particular way.

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?

I think my main argument in Portland was that the law and justice are two entirely different things. The law is used to maintain a stable society, and justice is a subjective concept anyway. I pointed out that most of the time the aim of the police is not necessarily to achieve justice, but to produce enough evidence to get somebody into court. The law allows guilty people to go free on a technicality, and that isn't justice, is it? I recall one of the other panelists describing a historical system under which members of the lower orders were given much more severe sentences than the upper classes for the same offense. That was a law designed to keep people in their place; it wasn't what most of us would call justice. A few years ago there was a very controversial case in the UK, after a farmer shot and killed a burglar who had broken into his house. I don't know how that would have been dealt with in the U.S., but here the farmer was charged with murder, and convicted. It split opinion in the country down the middle -- 50 per cent of people thought it was justice, and the other half didn't. Given that the situation in real life is so blurred, and that the law does not necessarily equal justice, why should we always expect wrongdoers in novels to be dealt justice by the law? And what is justice anyway?

Do you think that readers' insistence on justice or punishment being meted out in crime fiction has changed since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.? Are we just hypersensitive right now, or have readers always needed justice to prevail in crime fiction?

I think some readers have always needed this. And, like many other things, the feeling has been magnified by the events of September 11. But the audience in Portland seemed to be split pretty well 50-50 on this question. Readers are very different from each other, and they read for lots of reasons. Personally, I'm happy as long as the resolution of a story provides the answers or explanations that I need. By the way, I think the endings of my own books do represent a kind of justice, and you can read them in that way. On the other hand, I'm equally happy if you go away wondering exactly what justice is. After all, it's one of the functions of a novel to make the reader think.

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.

I think we do also have to bear in mind some major changes that have taken place in British society since the Golden Age of country-house mysteries. The two world wars, coming quite close together, almost completely obliterated the country-house society and shook up Britain's social structure permanently. After 1945, the working classes began to get the chance of a good education. As a result, writers now come from a wider range of backgrounds, and most of them have never set foot inside the gates of a country house. But they do know the other end of society, and they often write passionately and unflinchingly about contemporary social issues. So their books can make uncomfortable reading. While it's true there are writers who emulate the American noir and hard-boiled genres, there is also this specifically British type of dark crime fiction which has its roots in an earlier tradition, and that's probably where I fit in. I suppose you might say that The Hound of the Baskervilles and Black Dog are mutts from the same kennel. (Or maybe that's the sort of thing only a journalist would say!)

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.

How long did it take you to write your first published novel, Black Dog?

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!

Do you see yourself sticking with this series for a while, or are other unrelated novel projects already calling out for your attention?

I have ideas for a couple more Cooper and Fry novels at least. But I also have a standalone in a drawer, which might come out at the right moment. I admire authors who can successfully carry forward two series, or a series and some standalones.

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.

There's a British author, Robert Goddard, who writes this kind of book very successfully. I think of them as "semi-historical mysteries," because they're set in the present but there's a mystery to be solved in the past. The title is from a line which runs: "The past is the only dead thing."

I could have had this book published after winning the prize. But the timing was awkward, and I decided to sit on it, to concentrate on the Cooper and Fry series. I hope it might be published one day, but I'm not sure when the right time will be yet.

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?

My journalistic experience did help a lot -- partly with procedure, but more towards getting an idea of how police officers think and what sort of people they are. I research specific areas, such as forensics or the setting up of an incident room. Derbyshire Constabulary have been very helpful to me this way -- and they still talk to me, even after they've read the books!

How concerned are you with getting the police procedures right in these books? Do you think most readers would recognize the difference?

I try to give a feeling of authenticity, but I'm willing to throw authenticity to the winds occasionally for the sake of the story. Because of this, some of the police procedural detail isn't entirely accurate, and I expected the police officers that I know to be my biggest critics, since they would spot the inaccuracies. But they have never mentioned this -- in fact, they often tell me my books are very realistic. I realized that they weren't looking at the procedural detail, but recognizing the characters in the books as the sort of people they work with themselves. Police officers most often say to me that they're delighted someone is finally writing detective novels in which the junior officers do all the work! The tradition in British crime fiction has been for a chief inspector or superintendent to pound the streets, interviewing all the suspects himself and solving a murder case pretty much single-handed. It isn't like that, and hasn't been for many years. Senior officers hardly leave the office, and they have large teams of detectives and other specialists to do the legwork in major enquiries. One officer told me that since he had been promoted to inspector, he had forgotten how to conduct an interview, because his sergeant and constables did them all.

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.

Do you find much time to read other mysteries? Do you have favorite writers among your contemporaries, or specific books in this genre that you've found memorable?

I don't have as much time as I would like. From reading all the time, I now find I have to snatch the chance to catch up on the best of what's new in between delivering one book and starting the next. Luckily, my wife reads a lot and we have similar tastes. She reads all the books I get and suggests which I might enjoy, if I have time. I tend to look for character-driven novels. My favorite authors include Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson and Minette Walters; among the Americans, Laurie King and Michael Connelly. Recent discoveries I've enjoyed include Giles Blunt and John Shannon.

If you could have written any other book in this genre, which would it have been?

Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone. This is not a whodunit, as we know the identity of the killer from the start. But Rendell manages to keep us riveted to the end to find out "why." That's setting yourself a challenge and achieving it admirably.

Now broaden that question: If you could have written any other book -- period -- which one would it have been?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I thought Douglas Adams was a genius.

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


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine. Jiro Kimura is the editor/creator of The Gumshoe Site.