Scared to Live by Stephen Booth

Scared to Live is the seventh book in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry series by English crime writer Stephen Booth. Scared to Live is a memorable book and for the first time in a long time, I find I’m totally obsessed with a series.

Rose had always known she’d be killed. Well, it felt like always. She could barely remember a time before she’d known. She expected to meet her death because of the way she’d led her life. It was a question of when it would happen, and how. All she could hope for was that it would be sudden, and painless. (…) In some ways, knowing her fate only made things worse. It meant that she lived every day in fear. (…) For a long time now, she’d considered it more difficult to live than to die.

SummaryHow do you investigate the murder of a woman without a life?

That’s the challenge facing Detective Constable Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry when a reclusive agoraphobic is found shot to death in her home. For a woman with no friends, no family, and virtually no contact with the world, someone took an exceptional amount of care executing her murder. At nearly the same moment, a raging house fire claims the life of a young mother and two of her children. But troubling questions remain in the ashes. Among them, how did the fire start and where was the husband at two A.M.?

As the two cases begin to converge, a horrific possibility takes shape. A killer is stalking the Peak District whose motives are a mystery and whose methods are unpredictable. And his next victims could be the only two cops who can stop him.

My thoughts: I’ll begin with all the things I’ve said before. You can start reading the series with this book, but I really think you should first get to know the characters through the first book, Black Dog. Scared to Live is not really fast paced, but it is definitely thrilling. There are twists and turns and unexpected outcomes, but they are not all there is. The book is set in the fictional Peak District town of Edendale and are filled with picturesque descriptions of the countryside. It revolves around the lives of two Derbyshire detectives, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. The reason I say lives is that the book does not feature a single investigation. There are multiple cases, multiple solutions and long glimpses into their personal lives, interactions and opinions. That is not to say that the author doesn’t manage to neatly tie it all up together at the end. For me, Scared to Live and the other books in the series are almost genre-defying and rarely as riddled with stereotypes as most small town crime fiction (the “cozies” as they’re called.) They feel complete.

In Scared to Live, Cooper takes on the carefully executed murder of a mysterious woman, Rose Shepherd, who seems to have no life or connection with the rest of the world, while Diane Fry struggles with the investigation of the fire, convinced that the husband started the house fire that killed his wife and daughters. However, neither case leads anywhere, until they find the thing that connects the two. The missing child of the victims of the house fire is discovered to be adopted and the family is supposed to have met the other victim, the loner, Rose Shepherd.

Ben Cooper is an altogether likable character. He is the one everyone’s fond of, the son of a policeman, grown up on a farm and is pretty much the go-to guy when it comes to local information. He has ‘instincts’, few qualms about breaking rules when following his intuition, he empathizes with the victims and gets attached too easily. But for all his outgoing, warm helpfulness, he is kind of naive, which of course only makes him cuter. Diane Fry is the exact opposite. At first glance, I suppose she’d be an intimidating, stern person you’d hesitate to go up to. She is a city-girl stuck in the countryside, desperate to get out and reluctant to form any bonds. And she has a past that brought her to Edendale from Birmingham. Unlike Cooper, Diane has no family to speak of, having been in foster care, no friends and a very go-by-the-book attitude. You don’t find her expressing any feelings other than a sort of derisive sarcasm, and you find it very difficult to sympathize with her. She also shares a history with Cooper that you’d want to read Black Dog to know.

It’s the complex tension between Cooper and Fry that makes these novels as engaging as they are. They often misunderstand, disagree with and infuriate each other. And no, they don’t end up together (haven’t yet, anyway) nor do you want them to – most people end up hating Fry, although I kind of like her for being the gritty outsider that she is, not all characters can be perfect saints. In Scared to Live, though, we get to see a more human side of Fry, she has an almost crush, though not quite. She begins to care about the surviving daughter of the victims of the suspicious house fire, the girl who turns out to have a similar past as Fry herself. Ben Cooper’s personal life features less in this book, we know he’s dating scene-of-crime-officer Liz Petty. Although, I was considerably haunted by his brother Matt’s worry that his daughter might have a genetic inclination to schizophrenia because of their mother.

The best thing about Scared to Live is the international turn it takes. Saying any more, in my opinion, would ruin the book for you. The story is intense and heart wrenching, the themes are intriguing and the ending is epic. Like every book I’ve read in this series, the final showdown left me chuckling with satisfaction. Read it.

I got this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What about your favourites – any mystery series you’d recommend?

The Dead Place by Stephen Booth

The Dead Place is the sixth book in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry mystery series by Stephen Booth (after One Last Breath and followed by Scared to Live.) That being said, having done it, I’d say it’s okay to read some of the books out of order as standalones; provided you read the first book Black Dog, which is fabulous, by the way. I can’t recommend this series enough.

Summary: “This killing will be a model of perfection. An
accomplishment to be proud of. And it could be tonight or maybe next week. But
it will be soon. I promise.”

The anonymous phone calls indicate a disturbed mind with an
unnatural passion for death. Cooper and Fry are hoping against hope that the
caller is just a harmless crank having some sick fun. But the clues woven
through his disturbing messages point to the possibility of an all-too-real
crime… especially when a woman vanishes from an office parking garage.
But it’s the mystery surrounding an unidentified female
corpse left exposed in the woods for over a year that really has the detectives
worried. Whoever she might have been, the dead woman is linked to the mystery
caller, whose description of his twisted death rituals matches the bizarre
manner in which the body was found. And the mystery only deepens when Cooper
obtains a positive I.D. and learns that the dead woman was never reported
missing and that she definitely wasn’t murdered. As the killer draws them
closer into his confidence, Ben and Diane learn everything about his deadly
obsessions except what matters most: his identity and the identity of his next
My thoughts: The last time I was this addicted to a book series was Harry Potter, and considering the Potter-fanatic that I am, that’s saying something. The thing I love the most about these Cooper and Fry books, which may be classified as police procedural, is that they are all about the characters. Like Stephen King, Booth manages to dive right into people’s minds and build true to life characters. You don’t always like them nor agree with them, especially not Diane Fry, but that’s what makes them click. Ben Cooper is, of course, easy to be fond of, it’s great to be inside his mind, read his thoughts and his instincts and how he feels for the victims. But even with Fry, he makes a good partnership (okay, it’s not good, more like challenging), and together they’re unlike your usual awkward-tension-turns-to-love pairs.

The Dead Place, not surprisingly, is about death. It’s about the morbid fascination that so many people seem to have with dying, the book is also about the history of death or death in history, sarcophagi and cremation and all that. The Dead Place, on a more positive note, is about dealing with loss and facing death on a personal and professional front. It takes you to grieving families in various stages of shock and denial, and at the same time, gives you a glimpse into the coolly detached workings of a funeral home. Death is a part of life and in The Dead Place, Booth gives it an emotional depth rarely achieved in murder mysteries.

The thing that makes The Dead Place work, above all, is the atmosphere. The picturesque imagery of the northern English countryside is rich with detail. You just know he knows what he’s writing about, and you find yourself right there inside the books. It’s the unique combination of a swift plot with brooding, often meandering writing, quite unlike the usual action packed thrillers out there, that makes The Dead Place so special.

I would recommend this book to anyone who (as the dedication of the book goes) has ever had to deal with death.

Blood On The Tongue by Stephen Booth

After I read and reviewed Black Dog, the first in the Ben Cooper & Diane Fry crime series, I just couldn’t resist buying Dancing with the Virgins, the sequel. Then, I found two more at the library (and not caring much for reading in order, I read them.) Blood on the Tongue by Stephen Booth is the third book. Now, having already read two books out of order, I can say with certainty that the books provide enough background information to work as standalones. Then again, I can’t think of a reason for not wanting to read the whole series! 

Summary: The weather is cold and the clues no warmer as Peak District
detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry tackle a medley of mysteries – each one
knottier than the last – in English author Stephen Booth’s haunting third novel,
Blood on the Tongue. The unidentified body of a dead man has turned up on a
frosty roadside. An abused woman is found curled in the snow on nearby
Irontongue Hill, an apparent suicide. And there’s the lingering puzzle of a
Royal Air Force 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. With leave and sickness decimating
the ranks of the Edendale police force, all hands are needed to solve the
modern deaths. But constable Cooper finds himself distracted by the World War
II tragedy, in large part because of a beguiling young Canadian, the
granddaughter of that missing pilot, who’s come to Edendale determined to clear
her ancestor’s name.

My thoughts: The characters, the wonderfully fleshed out characters, were the highlights of the book for me. I could once again instantly picture the nice, perceptive (albeit slightly awkward and generally confused, around Diane Fry, anyway) Cooper and the (still) sort of cold outsider Fry. But they are the main characters of the book, you’d expect them to stand out. But – I loved the many officers in the police department, the Polish community of Edendale, the survivors of the war and the avid collectors of war memorabilia and those others who found their way into the story and got stuck there without ever meaning to nor really deserving to; every single character felt so real and alive. The intermingling lives made all the concepts of flat characters and round characters and foils just vanish right out of my head – they were real people for the time it took me to finish the book and then some. Cooper is the kind of guy anyone would like and Fry the kind of woman you’re bound not to, but together they just make the perfect, if a little odd, team. Diane was a little less annoying in this book than usual, or maybe I am just warming up to her. Either way, I particularly liked the typical Cooper and Fry moments in Blood On The Tongue. A lot depends on protagonists in any book, and this series revolves around the perfect pair!

Another specialty of this book was all the work that went into creating the right atmosphere. For every scene. What I loved was it was not just about detailed descriptions: the ice and the chill were amazingly described. But then there was that part about Cooper’s squelching wet shoe that brought the feeling to life. The setting is obviously partly fictional and partly real and to someone who has never been there (to the real places) the attraction was that it was hard to figure out just what was made up. And it was all so vivid that I actually wished it weren’t not-real!  Then there were those little well placed snippets of insight (which I just had to highlight – so by the end there were yellow boxes glaring at me from every three pages).

It was one of the worst sounds you could ever hear – the ticking of a clock in an empty house after its owner had died. It was a reminder that the world would carry on just the same after you had gone, that the second hand wouldn’t even hesitate in its movement as you passed from living to dying. Tick, you were there. Tick, you were gone. As if you had never mattered. It was a sound that struck straight to some primal fear in the guts – the knowledge that time was steadily counting you down to your own death.

If I had to point out a problem I had with the book, and I don’t want to, it could be that the book was a little slow, a little confusing at the beginning, and it took me a little while to get completely drawn in. But once I was engrossed, making time to read it had priority over all my daily plans. Fact is, this is definitely one of those reads that I’d recommend to anyone who’d care to listen, and that means, you should read it too. Get it right here!

Black Dog by Stephen Booth

The book opens with a note telling us what ‘black dog’, aside from the obvious, means: melancholy, depression of spirits; ill humour. In some country places, if a child is sulking, it is said ‘the black dog is on his back.’
Summary: As helicopters search Northern England’s Peak District for
fifteen year-old Laura Vernon, Detective Constable Ben Cooper quietly dreads
the worst. When her body is found in the woods, Cooper’s investigation
begins with a short list of very uncooperative suspects: retired miner
Harry Dickinson, whose black Labrador discovered Laura’s body, and Laura’s
wealthy parents. Uneasily teamed with ambitious newcomer Detective Constable
Diane Fry, Cooper tests a town’s family ties, friendships, and loyalties – and
finds that in order to understand the present, they must unearth the past.
My thoughts: Wow. This is a fantastic read. Not only am I going to wholeheartedly recommend Black Dog to everyone, I’m going to go ahead and read the rest of the Ben Cooper & Diane Fry series; if the twelve books that follow are anything like this one, I know I’ll love them. It is a unique story, with all the pieces of the intricately crafted puzzle falling smoothly in place at the end.
You know, in most popular mysteries (the few that I have read, anyway) the whole plot has an increasing frenzy and is the build up to a fabulous, thrilling ending. If that is the kind of conclusion you like to your reads, this might seem disappointing, a let down. Because the ending is too simple. It is so simple, that it would sound far fetched to people who are used to that grand climax. It reminded me of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, for no reason other than how it made me feel; surprised and convinced, not to mention, wholly awed. It was impossible for me to have guessed it, but I know the answer had been right there all along, staring me in the face. The only disappointment I felt was for not having thought of it! 
But even if not the ending, there is so much to appreciate and be impressed by in this book. While still being a swift mystery, Black Dog is like a laid back character sketch of all sorts of people in your usual small town. I loved the quirky ones, of course, like Harry Dickinson. And I also liked Gwen, his wife, about whom Cooper was so right – some people just get miserably tangled in messes they don’t deserve to be in. Most of all, I liked Diane Fry; because she was so realistic. I liked how, as an outsider, she provided a neatly contrasting perspective on the rest of the team; one which I couldn’t easily dismiss as she was also one of the good guys. The drama in Cooper’s life was overwhelming and effectively justified the few character flaws in my mind (which made him much better than a conventional Lee Child-ish detective!) The book is wonderfully written, with hilarious comments at the most unexpected times and apt vivid descriptions that bring the setting to life. Mostly, I found Black Dog by Stephen Booth to be a perfect start to a series; which is something I hardly ever get to say. And Diane Fry and Ben Cooper do seem to make, possibly in spite of themselves, a pretty good team.
This Witness Impulse book counts as another R.I.P. Challenge read.