WWII crash still echoes in England

By Oline H. Cogdill
Mystery Columnist

Posted November 3 2002

Blood on the Tongue. Stephen Booth. Scribner. $24. 400 pp.

Winter comes quickly and quite cruelly to England's Peak District. The tourists and their myriad problems have left, but the village of Edendale has not settled into a quiet season.

The day has barely begun before the newly promoted Detective Sgt. Diane Fry and young Detective Constable Ben Cooper deal with the "shuddering chaos" of a mini crime wave -- a double assault possibly fueled by racial hatred; an unidentified man uncovered by a snowplow and a young woman found frozen to death on Irontongue Hill. As the overworked and understaffed police department tries to deal with its current crop of crimes, Ben and Diane are pulled into a decades-old mystery.

Alison Morrissey has arrived from Canada to finally learn the truth behind the death of her grandfather, Daniel McTeague. Back in 1945, the decorated soldier piloted a Royal Air Force bomber that crashed into the peat moors of Irontongue. The longstanding rumor has persisted that McTeague was bribed to crash the plane and that he walked away from the wreck, deserting a promising military career and his wife and child to whom he was supposedly devoted. Alison has come to Edendale accompanied by a British tabloid journalist and a bit of political pull. The local police are supposed to help her interview those who remember the crash, especially the bomber's only other survivor, Zygmunt Lukasz.

While the end of WWII was more than 57 years ago, remnants of many Allied and Nazi crashes are still scattered along Irontongue. The waning years have not diminished the memory of those who were at the scene of the Lancaster bomber's crash, or those for whom WWII was a defining moment. A farmer, who, as a young boy, alerted the authorities, still keeps a box filled with items about the disaster. A lonely old man remembers his futile attempts as a teenage member of the rescue team. Lukasz, who lives in the area's close-knit Polish community, has been ruled by the crash, nursing a lifelong hatred of what he believes was the pilot's utmost betrayal.

As Diane and Ben's current cases intersect, Ben's interest is piqued by the WWII crash and his growing attraction to the young Canadian woman. The events of nearly 60 years earlier will have a resounding effect on current events.

With only his third novel published in the United States, author Stephen Booth has firmly joined the elite of Britain's top mystery writers. In the expertly plotted Blood on the Tongue, Booth melds the British police procedural with the tenets of a historical to produce a solid psychological suspense tale that accelerates to a superb and extremely satisfying ending. Booth takes a decidedly hard-boiled approach that he then tempers with all-encompassing character studies rather than violence.

The brisk, no-nonsense, workaholic Diane is balanced by the empathetic, insightful Ben, whose youth is often mistaken for immaturity. The emotionally guarded Diane's controlling nature makes her more of an outsider than the fact that she transferred from an urban area to the rural Peak District that she dismisses as "primitive arctic waste." Ben's openness and knowledge of the Peak District make it easy for even suspects to talk to him. This "too bloody nice local lad" can even help deliver lambs if that's what it takes to get information. Diane and Ben's working dynamic, which include equal doses of respect and distrust, nourish Booth's fine series. The author also provides strength and depth to his supporting characters.

Booth's skill reaches its pinnacle through his keen eye for scenery. A former journalist, Booth has a cinematic approach in his exploration of the Peak District, which was the U.K.'s first national park and is the second most visited park in the world (after Mount Fuji in Japan). A richly atmospheric winter wind rustles through Blood on the Tongue, from the town's streets to a mountain that retains WWII secrets. Booth also vividly delves into a community within a community as he probes the customs, pride and insularity of Edendale's Polish residents.

In just three novels, Booth has firmly established himself as a British author of note. His first novel, Black Dog, won the Barry Award and was nominated for an Anthony Award for best first mystery novel. His second, Dancing with the Virgins, was nominated for the U.K.'s top crime writing award, the Macallan Gold Dagger. While Blood on the Tongue was a best seller last year in England, it has just been published in the United States.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at ocogdill@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4886.


Read a review of Blood on the Tongue by Sally Fellow of Mystery News


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