I should declare at the outset that I am a fan of M R Hall's series of books featuring Jenny Cooper, the Coroner for Severn Vale (and also that the publisher kindly gave me a copy of this book to review).
Cooper is one of those awkward types - not unfamiliar in crime fiction - who uses every last bit, and more, of the licence allowed by her job to investigate deaths that the powerful would prefer were quietly forgotten, always getting into deep trouble but generally finding out the truth despite everything.
At the start of this, Hall's 5th book, she has, though, calmed down a bit. After confronting traumatic events in her own past, she no longer needs sessions with Dr Allen, or anti anxiety drugs, to cope with life, and she is also trying to mend her relationship with her son.
That's something I think that the fans of Hall's dauntless coroner had been hoping for - I know I have - given that in the previous four books she has been variously arrested, threatened, suspended from her job and had her troubled past, and her mental condition, used to try and control her. And even when things are going well, there is always the odious Simon Moreton at the Ministry of Justice, her status-seeking consultant ex husband David and various families desperate for the truth. Jenny's only support has often been her officer, Alison. It soon becomes clear, though, in this book that Alison has problems of her own and this time she can only give limited help as Jenny gets caught up in another quest - I don't think this is too strong a word - not for justice, but simply for the truth - the only thing she can give a bereaved family. After a young girl does of meningitis Jenny sets off again, inspired by, of all people David, to expose, if she can a hospital cover up. At the same time she is investigating the perplexing suicide of an aid worker, recently returned from Africa.
Of course, more emerges. Of course, Jenny goes after the facts like an angry terrier, and of course, odium descends on her from assorted smug Government agencies who would prefer a more nuanced presentation of the facts (or perhaps, a more nuanced presentation of a few facts).
And as we have come to expect, even when she doesn't have a clue what is happening, Jenny digs away anyway, following every lead, reckless of the consequences, ignoring - pushing away - anyone who tries to stop her. That may sound like the template for many a crime novel, but what sets Hall's series apart is Jenny herself - a magnificent protagonist, well portrayed, infuriating, deeply human, brave, intense. And she never gives up, to a degree that makes the book painful to read at times, times when I found myself (nearly) wishing that Jenny would ease off, turn the whole thing over to the proper authorities, get in a pizza and a bottle of wine and give herself a quieter life. And throughout this she's berating herself for being a bad mother or accusing herself
of being cowardly (as if!)
In the end, Cooper unravels a chain of events stretching from Eastern Europe at the fall of the Berlin Wall to modern Africa to a 1980s biotech start in the US, and, finally, to Bristol. She does what she has to do to get answers, and there is a cost. Might there actually have been fewer deaths if Cooper had stood back and let others take over? By the end I'm afraid some relationships may have been broken beyond fixing, and that that will lead to more anguish and guilt for Cooper. We'll see.
This book has great verve (only slowing, perhaps, during a late stretch of exposition in the courtroom), a likeable, exasperating, central character, a disturbing and all too convincing premise and a real sense of danger. It's a worthy sequel to the previous Jenny Cooper books, possibly even a bit pacier than they were, and a thoroughly good read. Strongly recommended.
"The Chosen Dead"
Macmillan, 31 January 2013