Today’s blog highlights two UK authors whose series Auntie M follows.
Stephen Booth’s Derbyshire mysteries have caught on so well that the Guardian calls him “a modern master of rural noir.” The Peak District is always well explored in terms of the dark setting, and this is evident from the opening scene in Lost River.
Detective Constable Ben Cooper is on a Bank Holiday in May when an eight-year-old girl tragically drowns and he is helpless to save her. As this event haunts him, he becomes entangled with the dead girl’s family and the secrets they hide. Was this a horrible accident or a murder? Despite being warned off, he continues to investigate, which brings consequences to his personal and professional life.
In a continuing thread, Detective Sergeant Diane Fry returns to her home town of Birmingham to face the reopening of a case that hits too close to home. The area’s inner city streets are well-drawn, as is Fry’s fraught relationships with her sister, foster parents, and people from her past she learns she can’t really trust. Fry tries to preserve herself as she digs deeply for truths that will be startling and change the way she looks at people she thought she knew.
Booth’s books are well plotted and have a rich, dark atmosphere. The taut relationship between the prickly Fry and the softer Cooper has never shone brighter.
M. R. Hall’s Jenny Cooper mysteries are rapidly gaining an audience in the US. The Redeemed is the next installment in this series that relies heavily on Hall’s knowledge as a former criminal lawyer.
Jenny is Severn Vale District Coroner, a position she fights hard to keep every day, whether she’s battling her own interior ghosts or those of outsiders who’d like her to rubber stamp death certificates. She takes her job seriously, and we are behind her every step of the way as she battles her inner demons to find the strength to serve justice for those dead.
Hall does a fine job of explaining the differences between a criminal court and that of the Her Majesty’s Coroner, and he’s also well-versed in the debilitating anxiety and panic attacks Cooper struggles with. Her personal life is a mess: a son who spends most of his time with his father; an ex-husband whose new wife is pregnant; and a lover who needs a commitment from her, one she’s not certain she can give. She relies on pills to get her through the torment of her days and nights.
Living just over the border in Wales, that countryside is beautifully described; the area becomes a haven for Cooper in her investigation into three separate deaths. What looks like a suicide becomes more when a Jesuit priest appeals to her for help on behalf of one of his charges, who confessed to the murder of former adult actress Eva Donaldson. Eva has become a world-renowned anti-pornography crusader. Her murder investigation was rapidly closed when a former inmate, newly out on probation, confessed to her murder.
Father Lucas Starr is not above using emotional blackmail to urge Cooper to look again at Eva’s death. When the suicide that opens the novel is joined by a second, and both were members of Eva’s politically charged charismatic Mission Church of God, Jenny starts to agree that the surface story is far from the truth.
Her inquests will ruffle feathers of the wealthy and the mighty, who use their money and position to block her at every turn. They are not above resurrecting an old family tragedy in the news, one which haunts Jenny as her memory is wiped clean for that time period. Confronting that memory puts Jenny on a fearful inner journey to confront the ghosts of her past. Using the law and her hard-won strength to continue, Jenny feels alone in her quest for the real story. Even Jenny’s court officer is unreliable in terms of support, as Alison is struggling with her husband’s infidelity.
It’s only when Father Starr brings help, just as Jenny reaches the end of her options, that she claws her way to finding the resolution the cases demand, at tremendous personal cost.
Hall’s Jenny is a flawed woman but an appealing character. Quick to feel frustration and lash out, he manages to have her retain our sympathy and understanding, especially when the decks become stacked against her. You’ll be rooting for Jenny to survive.