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Blind to the Bones    by Stephen Booth order for
Blind to the Bones
by Stephen Booth
Order:  USA  Can
Scribner, 2003 (2003)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is the fourth in a series set in the northern England Peaks district, starring an ill-assorted pair of officers. Ben Cooper, who is open, caring and somewhat impulsive, is a local. His boss, Diane Fry, is a careful, ambitious outsider with a troubled history. They work apart for most of this episode, though it seems that the touchy, morbid Diane is oddly drawn to Ben, while also threatened by his interest in her past.

Young Emma Renshaw has been missing for over two years. When her mobile phone is found, with what look like bloodstains on it, it re-opens the cold case. Diane Fry takes it on, partnered with Gavin Murfin, an entertainingly shallow officer whose mind is mostly on food. Booth does a wonderful job with the young woman's parents, who have reacted to her loss in a very peculiar fashion that has its own logic - they are blind to the possibility of bones.

At the same time, Ben Cooper has been seconded (in a lateral development move) to the Rural Crime Team, which is investigating a series of burglaries. A murder pulls the two investigations together, shining the spotlight on the dreary little town of Withens, whose close Oxley family reminded me somewhat of the villainous clan in Lorna Doone. They are certainly not fond of officialdom, and Ben gradually discovers that they have good reasons for their fears.

One sub-plot here is Diane's ongoing search for her sister Angie who, in parallel with the main plot, disappeared as a teenager when they were both in foster care. But, given that Angie was a young drug addict, her fate seems obvious and Diane is finally coming to terms with her loss, when there are surprising new developments from an unlikely angle.

The mystery incorporates antique thefts, ruthless property developers, morris dancers including the local 'Border Rats', an old custom of 'well dressing' and a dark history of the exploitation of workers on a local railway tunnel. The author manages the mystery well, shining the light of suspicion successfully away from the true villain, who took me by surprise. And he develops Ben and Diane's relationship only a little, leaving lots of room for both closeness and conflict in future episodes.

The Peaks district setting has plenty of scope for local interest as well as dark secrets, and the author has a way with words that makes a reader regularly sit up and take notice - as when he speaks of a wind farm, whose turbines 'looked like the advance armies of the twenty-first century, marching over the hill toward Withens.' Though this is the first of Stephen Booth's mysteries that I've read, I'll be looking for more.

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