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Blood on the Tongue    by Stephen Booth order for
Blood on the Tongue
by Stephen Booth
Order:  USA  Can
Pocket, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

This follows Stephen Booth's two very successful previous mysteries, Black Dog and Dancing with Virgins. Not only does Blood on the Tongue have an even more evocative title, but it is also even more well-written. Though former journalist Booth just started writing mysteries a few years ago, he is now poised to join the ranks of Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson - another author to enjoy for Anglophile lovers of the darker British mysteries.

Booth sets his stories in the Peak District of England, with its small, almost claustrophobic villages and isolated rural areas. The natural environment lends itself well to mood setting, with dark, foreboding peaks towering over the countryside. The weather affects the atmosphere much more than in a city, especially in the deep of winter, which is the setting for this book. A snow plow blade cuts into the first body, and a second is found frozen up on one of the peaks. Of this victim, Booth says 'Because of the pain, Marie knew, in a lucid spell, that the sounds she could hear were caused by the tiny bones of her inner ear shrinking and twisting as they froze'.

A strong feature of the series is the strained relationship between local Detective Constable Ben Cooper and his newly promoted boss, Detective Sergeant Diane Fry, an outsider in an area where such things really matter. Booth does not take the easy path of simple sexual tension between the two young officers. Instead he makes Diane a rather unlikeable woman whose traumatic earlier years have made her cold and distant. As a supervisor, she has become a bit of a control freak with her subordinates.

On the other hand, Ben is intuitive in his understanding of people and prone to 'flights of fancy'. He has a 'fascination with family ties, the sense of loyalty that drove people's lives'. Of course this drives Diane crazy and she tries to keep him under her thumb. But, as a friend describes Ben, 'you needed the feeling that you'd done something worthwhile. That drug. You said it was the only thing that could give you the buzz and make you really feel alive'.

The book begins with the discovery of an unidentified body in a snow bank. Then young Canadian Alison Morrissey arrives to look into the fate of her grandfather. He was piloting an RAF flight during the last months of World War II when it crashed into the Irontongue Hill near Edendale leaving only Alison's grandfather Danny McTeague and one other man alive. McTeague, widely believed to have caused the crash, disappeared, never to be heard from again until one of his war medals was recently mailed to Alison. Next the frozen body of Marie Tennent is found up near the plane crash and her newborn baby is missing. Cooper is drawn to Alison and starts looking into the plane crash, greatly annoying Fry who wants him to focus on investigating the modern deaths. But Cooper eventually finds a link between the modern and past mysteries.

Booth excels at creating protagonists who are fully drawn and alive. Even more telling of a writer's skill is his ability with the minor characters, who breathe life into his tales. From the lonely old man so crippled with arthritis that he can't drink a cup of tea to the forlorn young mother in her painfully sad home, the people are real. And readers will easily visualize the story's settings thanks to the author's graphic, beautifully done images. All in all, Stephen Booth is a very welcome addition to British mystery writers. His next offering, Blind to the Bone, will be out in October.

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