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British Mysteries

Dancing with the Virgins, Steven Booth.

(out of print, check for used copies at our ABE store).

Fans of Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin can happily welcome the latest gift to these shores from Great Britain, Steven Booth. A richly layered and detailed novel set in the moor country of England, Dancing with the Virgins is rife with atmosphere, memorable characters, and plot threads that are intricately woven together in a satisfying manner. Booth's central character, Constable Ben Cooper, is incapable of viewing the world as black and white - he sees everything in shades of grey, to the great annoyance of Diane Fry, a fellow detective. Fry and Cooper are complete opposites - not interested in each other romantically - which sets up not only wonderful tension, but a forum for Booth to contrast their two ways of looking at the world. His book may be a mystery, but his writing approach is that of a pure novelist.

Dancing with the Virgins begins with the discovery of a young woman's body on the moor, arranged as though she were dancing, among nine ancient stones called the "Virgins" - a smaller version of Stonehenge. In the course of their investigation, the young woman's death is apparently linked to the disfigurement of another woman, and the disappearance of a third. The police are unsure if this is the work of a serial killer, but it's a link they have to pursue.

Diane Fry, who does see the world in black and white, is, among other things, given the task of interviewing Maggie Crew, the victim of the disfigurement. Once a successful attorney, Maggie now refuses to leave her apartment, and has trouble even talking with Fry. Fry plys her with questions, sure that hidden in Maggie's subconscious is an awareness of her attacker, and of the other young woman's killer. This is a revelatory experience in terms of learning both more about Diane Fry, and in learning about Maggie herself, a pivotal character. Ben is given the task of interviewing the farmers in the surrounding countryside, chief among them one Warren Leach, whose wife discovered Maggie Crew, and whose farm is rapidly losing too much money to stay afloat, as his family disintegrates around him as well.

The intertwined characters - and there are actually few suspects - are masterfully drawn. Booth proves he is a true mystery writer in the golden age tradition with his ability to make the reader suspect many different characters in turn. He proves he is also a modern writer with a wonderful ability to paint the world in the shades of grey that Ben Cooper sees. Cooper is able to feel pity not only for the victims, but for the outcasts, and even the killers - much to the disgust of the puritanical Fry. Booth hints at a great deal of "backstory" for Fry, however - and it merely whets your appetite to read more about these two very wonderful additions to the mystery cannon of great characters.

Booth is also very much a part of the current British renaissance in crime fiction - there are so many wonderful British writers at the moment who take a layered, dark, psychological view of the world that Stephen Booth shares, and write about it beautifully. Booth's novel is made distinct by a very specific place and way of viewing the world. I can't recommend this author highly enough.

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