In a never-ending desire to find decent new authors of crime fiction, I chanced across Stephen Booths work in my local library, and was impressed by the acclaim that authors such as Reginald Hill and Val McDermid had for the book, so borrowed it. I liked the fact that it was a good, thick book too, ideal for taking on holiday. I have to admit that it was a compelling story I read it in a couple of days because I was anxious to find out what happened unfortunately, it was marred by weak writing skills, which made parts of the book flow quite badly.
Stephen Booth was born in Burnley, Lancashire and has stayed in the area since. He was a journalist for a local newspaper before he decided to turn his hand to writing novels, all of which are based in the Peak District. Black Dog is his first novel.
A fifteen year old girl, Laura Vernon, is missing and the police, including Detective Constable Ben Cooper, are called in to help look for her. Her badly beaten body is eventually found after an elderly local man, Harry Dickinson, finds one of her trainers in the vicinity. Despite finding her trainer and reporting it to the police, Harry is plainly hiding something, but stubbornly refuses to share what he knows with anyone apart from his two friends, who are equally refusing to speak.
Lauras parents are not much more help in giving information about Laura. Her mother claims that she was an angel, although she was clearly anything but, and her father barely seems to know her at all. Laura seems to have had at least two boyfriends, both of whom are suspects; one of them is even more so when he goes missing. Cooper and new addition DC Diane Fry are determined to squeeze information out of Harry and Lauras parents; but can they find out the truth when their own lives are far from being trouble-free.
I didnt think that the two main characters, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, were particularly well portrayed. The author tried to make them more realistic by giving them a background; Bens mother has Altzheimers and is increasingly more difficult to look after and Diane was gang-raped in her former job as a constable in Birmingham. Both are ambitious Diane to the extent that her whole life revolves around her job, whereas Ben works in the area because that is where he grew up and he enjoys being with his old friends and family. Somehow, though, both characters seemed rather flat and didnt leap of the page at me. Everyones opinion of Ben is so high that he becomes the sort of person you resent because he is so perfect, even with his family problems. He miraculously always seems to be on the spot in order to find a vital piece of evidence. Diane is just too tough and good at her job and doesnt strike me as being likeable.
None of the other characters are described realistically either. Harry Dickinson and his two friends are bound together by history, yet their actions still do not seem convincing, but rather as if the author, much younger than they are, has tried to put himself in an old persons shoes, but hasnt quite got there. It is hard to describe, but I found them very wooden.
Despite my criticism of Cooper and Fry, I cannot write them off completely. There may be room in later books, when the author has settled in to his style, for their better development. I will probably try another book in the series, although if they do not improve, I dont think I will try any more.
My main criticism of this book is the writing style. There is so much description that is totally unnecessary and is just padding I am really surprised that an editor didnt cut back the number of words quite substantially. There is a lot of superfluous description of the criminal justice system that came across as being very patronising I appreciate that not everyone is aware of how the criminal justice system works, for example, the length of sentence for murder but I cant imagine that many people who would read this type of book will be unfamiliar. If the author felt it really necessary to add in this sort of information, it could have been added as notes; frankly, I think it should have been cut out completely. There were also huge chunks of description which really werent needed.
The characters two dimensionality was also off-putting. I suspect that the author has not yet found his particular style moving from journalism to novels cannot be straightforward and he may well have improved in later books.
What I did like about the plot was the story. It wasnt particularly original, but I enjoyed it, and it kept me reading despite the poor writing style. I spent an enjoyable two days working my way through it. There were some flaws to the story, but none that were particularly noticeable and certainly no more so than most examples of crime fiction. I also liked the setting of the book in the Peak District Stephen Booth caught the atmosphere well.
I cannot give more than three stars for this book because of the weak characters and failings in the writing. However, the storyline did save the book from being a total disaster. Recommended, with reservations, for fans of crime fiction who find a good storyline more important than high quality writing.
The book is available from Amazon for £5.59. Published by HarperCollins, it has 256 pages. ISBN: 0006514324
When smart, sexy teenager Laura Vernon goes missing one long, hot summer in the Peak District, local police mount a full-scale search operation. But it's retired lead miner Harry Dickinson who finally discovers Laura's body, and he seems bent on obstructing their investigation. Even her parents are holding something back. But what could be more important than finding Laura's murderer? Ben Cooper, a young DC living with tragedy, has known the villagers all his life, but his instinctive feelings about the case are called into question by the arrival of Diane Fry, a ruthlessly ambitious DC from another division. As the investigation twists and turns, Ben and Diane discover that to understand the present, they must also understand the past - and in a world where no one is entirely innocent, pain and suffering can be the only outcome.