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And now for something delightfully different. The novel carries but one blurb, but this time it's worth every word; from Lynda La Plante "M. R. Hall has created a wonderful heroine in a genre we haven't seen before". The heroine to which she refers is Jenny Cooper, leaving an acrimonious divorce behind her (as much as she can) and emerging from a maelstrom in a cocoon of a nervous breakdown to be able to function enough to start a new job as a Coroner.
Unfortunately, the peace and quiet she sought in her new role was not to be, as her predecessor died suddenly leaving behind him two cases for which his judgement call could be described as suspect. In the case of Danny Wills, 14, found hanging from the window bars in his bedroom at a Secure Training Centre, Harry Marshall promised his mother that no stone would go unturned but he chickened out before the inquest. For Katy Taylor, 15, found near Clifton Suspension Bridge slumped on the ground and partially decomposed, Marshall did not open an inquest even though the cause of death was heroine overdose.
Jenny is not the easiest of people to deal with but she also faces inheriting a clerk with an unusual loyalty to her previous boss; a "jobsworth" and self-important council official from the legal team; a forensic pathologist suffering from a lack of resources. Her surgeon ex-husband remains arrogant and domineering, and their son is troubled from their divorce. She also discovers that even in an escape to an isolated piece of countryside for her new home, everyone a few miles down the road knows all about the new resident.
Where a coroner's role is to investigate sudden or unexplained deaths, there is plenty of life in this novel: real life and tough life. In an interview in The Independent Matthew Hall said that he wanted to explore "pyschological experience" in Jenny and he acknowledged that some of it mirrored his own. Jenny suffers from anxiety and panic attacks; her swinging moods from anxiety to confidence and confrontation are quite extreme, but come across as real. (The only area that did not quite gel here was her addiction to temazepam; I suspect it should have been lorazepam, but the superb quality of the story allowed me to overlook that one.)
Hall spent six years working as criminal barrister where he represented children. Thus the scenes of the various institutions, their characters and their workings all feel very credible. They are also very informative, effectively woven in, without the preaching of his own opinions (although he clearly has some strong ones).
He has also worked in TV production and been a screenwriter with credits including Dalziel and Pascoe, Kavanagh QC, New Street Law, Wing and a Prayer, so he knows how to bring a a great courtroom drama to the screen. Well, he also knows how to bring that to a novel. Scenes that could have been boring were full of tension and emotion and always moved the plot along.
As for settings, he plays with place names a bit, but knows the area well, even as far as acknowledging that as you head west over the Severn Bridge into Wales it's often either starting to rain or quickly turning into a downpour – a very authentic touch. Another element of (astonishing) authenticity, for a man writing a female protagonist, I think his take on how a forty-something woman views other women is spot on.
So, no major police investigations, no private investigators, no extended time in mortuaries, just one woman forced to act almost alone in her capacity to seek the truth. And this she does, quickly becoming a crusader to the extent that even though she suspects her predecessor had been put under pressure, she doesn't acknowledge the risk to herself until it's too late. What a great story. I had to postpone some plans to finish it. Like Tom Bale's Skin and Bones, I'll be very surprised if this one doesn't show up on some awards shortlists in 2009.