I’ve mentioned Stephen Booth’s Lost River in the context of the amount of background information that the book contains, but there is much more to it than that. This is the tenth book in the Cooper and Fry series (although oddly, the press release says it’s the ninth – the correct figure appears on the dust wrapper) and one of the reasons I plucked it out of the voluminous pile of splendid books that I really ought to read was the evocative title, which really is made relevant to the story, in a neat and highly satisfactory manner that remains unclear until a late stage.
The opening chapter is gripping, with Ben Cooper involved in a tragic incident, when he fails to save a young girl from drowning. He becomes intrigued by her family, the Nields, and it is quickly apparent that all is not right in the Nield household. Ben is an appealing character, and the only false note is when he says to the grieving mother, ‘Be thankful that you still have your oldest child.’ This comment is relevant to the plot, but I didn’t think Ben - who is a nice guy - would say something so insensitive.
This is a good example of the way in which contemporary writers work with the conventions of traditional British crime fiction, whilst updating them. The story of the Nields alternates with Diane Fry’s journey back into her own past, a journey that takes her back to Birmingham. The first half of the book moves at a rather sedate pace, but the momentum gathers in the second half, and Diane’s quest eventually ends with her making not one but two quite shocking discoveries. To some extent, Diane’s story takes centre stage in the later part of the book, which I hadn’t expected, and it’s a good example of how a talented crime writer will confound reader expectations.
And Stephen Booth certainly is a talented writer. One of my fondest memories is of the Harrogate Festival four years ago, when I was short-listed for the Theakston’s prize for the best crime novel of the year (for The Coffin Trail.) And sitting alongside me were not only Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, but also Stephen Booth. Neither Stephen nor I won, but it was a great evening all the same, and one that lives on vividly in my memory.