Set in the brooding moorland of England's Peak District, the story concerns the murder of young Neil Granger and the disappearance two years earlier of his friend, nineteen-year-old Emma Renshaw. DC Ben Cooper, temporarily assigned to the Rural Crime Unit, works the murder as well as a rash of thefts while DS Diane Fry is given the missing persons case, revived by the discovery of Emma's blood-stained cell phone. One name keeps coming up when the talk turns to crime and the small town of Withins: the Oxleys. They are behind the pranks, the fires, and—some believe—the burglaries. Anything bad going down in the Withens area must have the incorrigible Oxleys behind it.
This is the fourth book in the series featuring Fry and Cooper which includes One Last Breath. I'd actually read this book before, but it's been long enough that I didn't remember the details. Listening to the audio version added some layers I hadn't been quite so aware of before. The accents used for different characters placed them firmly within the class structure that persists in England and reinforced the story. Every time she spoke, Diane Fry's accent reminded me that she was from a lower class than Ben Cooper, contributing to the defensiveness natural to a woman succeeding in the man's world of the police force. Even without their reputation, the Oxleys' accents would have aroused prejudice. Sure that no one in authority would listen to them, it was no wonder the Oxleys operated outside the law. They have their close-knit family and their traditions, reminding me of the Ozark families in Winter's Bone.
What I did recall about the book was that morris dancers were involved, both Cotswold and Border morris. Morris is a traditional performance dance from the English countryside. It was mentioned in Shakespeare and was part of the traditional village life that Hardy memorialized in his Wessex novels. The dance predates written records, so no one knows its exact origin. It is thought that the name derived from the term for Moors, due to the old custom of dancers blacking their faces. Booth worked closely with a local team to get his details right, and his research pays off in accurate descriptions of the dances, the traditions, and even the good-humored rivalry between Cotswold and Border dancers. Booth's accuracy is important to me because I am a morris dancer. Jane Austen and others wrote about the traditional social dances—country dances and quadrilles—but it's rare to find a mention of the performance dances in literature. It's a comfort to stumble across something so familiar in the course of your difficult day, like suddenly seeing a friend or hearing your favorite O'Carolan tune. Your heart just opens.
Not that you need to know anything about morris dancing to enjoy this book. The pacing is good; the characters interesting; and the setting spectacular. This time through, I especially enjoyed the scraps of the region's history, the navvies who dug the huge tunnels for the trains and their deplorable living conditions. Perhaps “enjoyed” isn't the right word. Reading about the decision to continue using men to dig the tunnels even after machines became available because men were cheaper made me sad and furious. These tunnels in particular had the highest death rate for navvies, from accidents and cholera and malnutrition. Thinking of the 99% and the Occupy movements, it seems nothing has changed. People's lives count for nothing against the possibility of making a fortune. I think of all those railroad barons with more money than they could ever spend, and all those who died building the railroads.
I take comfort from Booth's rounded presentation of the Oxleys. They are neither stereotypical louts nor the saintly poor; simply people using their limited resources to do what they think best. And I take comfort, too, from the way—as in all the best mysteries—chaos resolves into the order of a satisfying conclusion.