Review: M R Hall – The Coroner

I picked up The Coroner after reading a positive review of M R Hall’s third book The Redeemed. I’m never quite sure whether it’s a good idea to begin reading an author mid series but given that there were only two previous books, it was no great hardship to start at the beginning. I’ve noticed that many crime writers are now publishing under their initials. I appreciate that this is nothing new (PD James, GK Chesterton etc) but it’s an increasing trend with even established writers going down the initial route, for example Natasha Cooper who is now writing as NJ Cooper. I don’t think it makes much difference to me as a reader but I am reliably told by a friend who works in a bookshop that there are some people who don’t read books by women and vice versa. I guess that I’m not completely immune to this, because as soon as I realised that the central protagonist was a woman teetering on the edge of meltdown – divorcee, panic attacks, Temazepam dependency – I checked the gender of the writer. Obviously something subliminal as I do believe that both men and women are more than capable of writing well about the opposite sex but it’s interesting that I couldn’t just read the book without first finding out.

Jenny Cooper is appointed Coroner for the Severn Vale district and soon realises that her recently deceased predecessor, Harry Marshall, has been running the office in a haphazard way. She finds files hidden in desk drawers and discovers serious flaws in the handling of the death in custody of a teenage boy. The discovery of a link between the young boy’s death and the suicide of Katy Taylor, a teenage prostitute suggests a conspiracy extending to the death of the former coroner himself.

I found the book a fascinating insight into the role of the coroner. Hall is a former criminal barrister and I don’t think I’ve come across before the level of detail he provides about the coroner’s role in England and Wales . The descriptions of the village halls, the visits to the mortuary and process of holding an inquest were well written and completely believable. This was also true of the descriptions of bureaucratic delays and petty prejudices that flourish in such environments.

I also liked the central protagonist, Jenny Cooper. She seemed a realistic character although whether anyone can take so many tranquilizers and imbibe that level of alcohol without killing themselves is open to question. I thought her troubled relationship with both her ex-husband and her son to be particularly convincing and am sure that this is explored further in later books.

What didn’t I like? I guess the perpetrator of the crime didn’t figure large enough for me in the preceding narrative so that when he was eventually unmasked I didn’t feel overly interested. This was quite strange as I did care about the two killings, in particular the events that led up to the murder of Katy Taylor.

The book was an excellent read and I can understand why it was so well received. I’ve already got hold of a copy of The Disappeared, the second book in the series and I’m looking forward to seeing the characters develop.

Other reviews of the book can be found at Eurocrime and at Reviewing the Evidence.