Murder on the moors


British author Stephen Booth sets his mystery series in north-central England Ñ and the moors haven't felt this menacing since Catherine haunted Heathcliff in 'Wuthering Heights.'

Concentrating on character and atmosphere more than on 'whodunit,' Booth uses his extensive knowledge of police personalities and procedures, geography and folklore to create a sense of tension and mystery.

Booth, who will be in Portland this week for appearances at Borders and the Left Coast Crime 12 mystery literary convention, acquired his knowledge through years as a newspaper reporter in northern England, including time on the police beat. Currently living in Nottinghamshire Ñ the scene of England's first cops and robbers story, 'Robin Hood' Ñ he's retired from the newspaper business and writing crime novels.

To date, all three of Booth's books have taken place in north-central England's Peak District, a region of moors and hills that includes the world's second most visited national park (the first is Japan's Mount Fuji). And all feature the same protagonists: Ben Cooper, a country-boy copper with an open mind toward the frailties of human nature, and Diane Fry, his ambitious, city-girl colleague with some secrets of her own to hide.

Booth's first effort, 'Black Dog,' published in 2000, attracted critical attention and recognition; the London Evening Standard called it one of the best crime novels of the year. The quirky electronic mailing list DorothyL, which calls itself 'perhaps the longest-running mystery discussion forum in cyberspace,' put the book on its 2001 Top 10 Reads, and the crime fiction magazine Deadly Pleasures named it Best British Crime Novel of 2001.

As a result of such success, 'Black Dog' was picked up for publication around the world, but not without some tweaks to the title. In Germany, it's published under the name 'KŸhler Grund,' or 'cooler ground.' It Italy, it's 'Il Male Oscuro' Ñ the dark evil.

'And in France,' Booth says from Nottinghamshire, 'they decided not to attempt to translate the title at all, so the French edition is still called 'Black Dog.' '

'Dancing with the Virgins,' Booth's second crime novel, was also well received. Kirkus Reviews called it 'even more demanding, more substantial and more knowing about the darkest recesses of the heart (than 'Black Dog'): a strong brew for readers who can take it.'

One of the contributing factors to this 'strong brew' is its setting for the murder of a young woman Ñ a lonely and isolated circle of stones. According to local legend, the stones were virgins who were punished Ñ for eternity Ñ for dancing on the Sabbath.

Booth, who spends a lot of time hiking in the Peak District, says the stone circle in 'Dancing with the Virgins' doesn't actually exist.

'I used a bit of license here,' he says. 'Stone circles like this one are not geological phenomena but manmade, though manmade over 3,000 years ago. The area I'm writing about is based on a real place, called Stanton Moor, where there are several stone circles.

'The best known is the Nine Ladies circle, which has a smaller outlier called the King Stone. These stones are fairly small, though, so I combined the Nine Ladies with another circle nearby. So the Nine Virgins are fictional, but based on reality. Also, the legend of the village maidens turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath is found in several parts of Britain where there are stone circles.'

Booth's third Peak District-Fry and Cooper crime novel, 'Blood on the Tongue,' is scheduled to be published in the United Kingdom in April and in the United States in October.

It's subtitled 'Death in the Snow, Secrets on Ice.' Sounds cold, but it's hard to imagine a colder scenario than the stone virgins dancing on the moor, a young woman lying dead at their feet.

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