In spite of the slightly lurid title this is actually a murder mystery novel, not erotica! Stephen Booth has written a series (four at the last count) of whodunnits set in the English Peak District, a wild and mountainous region of the Midlands where making a living is as hard as the landscape. Booth captures the atmosphere of the area wonderfully; his descriptions are vivid and bring the gritstone hillsides and bleak moorland, the drystone walls and huddled farms and fields of sheep hurtling to life off the page.
His characters are excellent too – real people with just enough depth and darkness to be interesting; and his hero Ben Cooper, a young detective constable with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the local area and its people, is a refreshing change from all those maverick old coppers like Morse and Frost.
In this book Cooper has to investigate the death of a woman found stabbed to death amongst a circle of standing stones on the moors (the nine ‘virgins’ of the title) and his way to the truth is nicely strewn with obstacles including an earlier victim who survived but lost her memory, a suspect who may have been framed, a partner who admits to tampering with evidence, and a whole boat-load of red herrings. The denouement is exciting with just the right mix of ‘I never expected that’ and ‘oh yes, of course’. My only criticism is that it’s left almost wholly to the reader to work out who did what and why. Whilst I’m no fan of the kind of whodunnits where the detective lectures the suspects in the library about how clever he’s been, this smacked a little too much of leading the readers into a muddy field and abandoning them there.
There’s some controversial material in the book and Booth doesn’t shy away from including up-to-the-minute topics like child abuse, or from the occasional graphic description of gore. Overall, though, his skill as a story teller makes this seem less like a whodunnit and more like a mainstream novel that just happens to be about crime.