One Last Breath, by Stephen Booth

An old-fashioned cop on the Devil's Staircase
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The Independent Culture

Stephen Booth is steadily building up a reputation as a writer who shapes his work along the lines of the traditional crime story, but endows it with a literary strength that lifts it above the general ruck. This novel takes another step in that direction.

Stephen Booth is steadily building up a reputation as a writer who shapes his work along the lines of the traditional crime story, but endows it with a literary strength that lifts it above the general ruck. This novel takes another step in that direction.

In One Last Breath, the overarching metaphor is an ancient one: burial alive, death by suffocation. Early on, Booth's regular copper, DC Ben Cooper, gets trapped in a cave. Forced into a narrow crevice, he is horribly aware of millions of tons of Derbyshire rock over his head. Here in the huge caverns of the Peak District are natural phenomena known as the Devil's Staircase and Bottomless Pit, where calcination can rapidly overwhelm any object, turning it literally to stone. That includes the human body.

Other characters suffer from asthma, or breathing difficulties, struggling to stay alive and enviously watching those for whom the next gulp of air presents no problems. Taoism, as Booth comments, believes that you are born containing all the breath you will ever possess, and every exhalation takes you nearer death.

In this claustrophobic setting roams the figure of Mansell Quinn, an escaped "lifer" who stabbed his lover. There were strange features about that death: the murder was apparently not committed, as one might expect, by the lover's jealous husband. And where exactly was the schoolgirl daughter when the crime was discovered?

Quinn seems to be hunting down all those who helped to "put him away": his ex-wife, old cronies who gave evidence, and the policemen involved. One was Ben Cooper's now-dead father, the officer first on the scene. Will Quinn's hatred transfer from father to son? The question also arises of whether Cooper senior interfered with evidence for what used to be known in old-fashioned policing as "noble cause": the nailing of someone believed to be a villain, whether the true facts would stand up in court or not.

Alongside Cooper works DS Diane Fry, privately absorbed with her sister Angie, a drug-addict trying to kick the habit, who has moved in and is disrupting her tidy life. The relationship between Cooper and Fry is characterised by Fry's clear-sightedness, her understanding that he needs to prove the truth of the heroic image of his father. The irony is that although "people must have flaws before you can love them properly", she cannot apply this to her own relationships. Once again, the mutual comprehension these two sympathetic people are seeking is in danger of collapse.

The plot has a complex working-out dependent on character as much as technicalities. When so many crime writers are trendily featuring DNA, it is satisfying to have a policeman who can remember that people matter as well as chromosome profiles, and a crime writer who gives a satisfying read rather than a quick fix.

The reviewer's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan

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