Murder in Derbyshire
“It is my belief, Watson, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
The words of Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in The Copper Beeches sum up my aims when I decided to set my Cooper and Fry series in England’s Peak District. Lying mostly within the county of Derbyshire, this was the UK’s first national park: on the surface, a stunning landscape that draws millions of visitors every year. But there’s a darkness lurking beneath that surface, sinister secrets behind the attractive exterior. And that’s what I’m writing about—complex family relationships, ancient vendettas, the deepest mysteries of the human heart.
Ben Cooper and Diane Fry are two young police detectives working for Derbyshire Constabulary, and they’re based right in the heart of the Peak District, an area full of wonderfully atmospheric locations, steeped in thousands of years of history.
This is said to be the second-most-visited national park in the world, and that’s because it isn’t remote. Right on its doorstep, there are large cities whose inhabitants treat it as their own backyard. So it’s an ideal setting for me to examine the increasingly tense relationship between city and countryside. I’m also intrigued by its two distinct geological halves: the gentle farming country known as the White Peak, and the bleak moorlands of the Dark Peak. For me, they symbolize darkness and light, good and evil, right there in the landscape.
When I sat down to write the first Cooper and Fry novel, Black Dog, I wanted two contrasting pairs of eyes to explore this setting. Ben Cooper is the local boy who knows everyone, while Diane Fry is an outsider from the city. They see life in Derbyshire from very different points of view.
Here in the UK, it’s very rare that we get spree killers, those individuals who go on a shooting rampage and gun down dozens of victims in a couple of hours. But when they do crop up, they’re always in small towns. Most Brits would think immediately of the massacres in Dunblane and Hungerford and, most recently, in West Cumbria. All of them are small communities, well away from the main urban centers. In this kind of place, there’s no escape. If you’re harboring a grudge against someone, you’re likely to see him or her every day of your life until you can’t stand it any longer. Derbyshire is full of those small communities, where old enmities might have been seething for years.
At first glance, most of the county doesn’t look like a place with a high level of crime. A few books into the Cooper and Fry series, I began to worry that the murder rate in my fictional version of Derbyshire might be too high. The local daily paper once ran a double-page feature on my books. A huge photograph of me was accompanied by a headline that read: This man has single-handedly doubled the murder rate in Derbyshire. I stayed indoors for weeks, in case anyone who didn’t bother to read the article might report a sighting of me to the police!
I mentioned my concern to a Derbyshire police officer. He told me that this small regional force had three separate murder inquiries under way at the time, more than I would dare to use in one of my stories. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, and events happen in the Peak District that readers wouldn’t believe in a novel. One murder took place at a rural railway station, when a taxi driver was found dead in his cab. It was a difficult one for the police to crack because there was almost no motive and no prior link between victim and perpetrator. It turned out that the man responsible simply wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone.
I couldn’t use a case like that in my books. My murders happen for “proper” reasons, often as a result of tangled relationships, a desire for revenge, or simmering grudges that can go back for decades, or span generations. Those are the kinds of motives that crop up in a rural area like Derbyshire. And, for me, they’re far more interesting.
“EdaleVale6378” by Clem Rutter, Rochester Kent – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:EdaleVale6378.JPG#mediaviewer/File:EdaleVale6378.JPG