Stephen Booth’s long-running Cooper and Fry series is a consistent winner, so Auntie M was interested when she heard the news that he had written a standalone, Drowned Lives.

One of the hallmarks of his Peak District series is the strength of his familiarity with his Derbyshire setting and the descriptions and history of the area that imbue the novels. She’s happy to note that he brings this same strong sense of setting and its history to Drowned Lives in the canals surrounding Lichfield.

Chris Buckley is an odd duck with few friends and no remaining family, depressed after the deaths of both parents close to each other, with his council job hanging in the balance and a new business venture bringing him to the brink of financial chaos.

He’s moved into the family home he inherited and is trying to break back into his freelance journalism career, writing articles and taking his own photographs of the project underway to recreate part of the canal waterway in the Staffordshire countryside that has been buried for decades.

He’s working on one of these articles when a member of the work party brings him to meet an old gentleman who’s come to see him. Samuel Longden hints at knowing Chris’s family, claims to be an old family friend of his grandfather particularly, and is disappointed that Chris has no knowledge of him.

But Samuel challenges Chris with tidbits of family history he parses out, trying to enlist Chris to tell a story he’s begun, and urges him to help heal a rift in the Buckley family. Frustrated by the man’s guile, Chris is on the point of refusing and fails to meet Longden for an appointment, when tragedy strikes.

Samuel is murdered and his only daughter refuses to talk to Chris, but Samuel had one more trick up his sleeve from the grave: he’s left Chris his beginning manuscript of the Buckley family of canal engineers and workers, with notes and letters.

This will reluctantly thrust Chris into an investigation not only of Samuel’s murder but of the history that reaches back into the 1800s. He enlists his neighbor, Rachel, a librarian with research, and a mysterious woman who suddenly appears and offers to help.

It’s a twisted tale as more and more facts emerge but one thing is certain: Chris has put himself in jeopardy and he can’t figure out why.

A tale of secrets that transcend years and affect family histories, Booth’s language has a gothic feel that adds to the dark atmosphere in this novel from a writer The Guardian calls “A modern master.”