M R Hall: The Coroner
Pan Books 2013 (2009)
When one woman has to contend not only with conspiracy, obfuscation and corruption in high places but also antagonism and intimidation from colleagues and opponents alike, you would think that it’s too much for one individual to manage. If you add in personal difficulties arising from divorce and psychiatric problems stretching out of childhood trauma you can be sure the odds are stacked against her.
And yet this is what Jenny Cooper, the newly appointed coroner to the fictional Severn Vale Dictrict in Bristol, has to face when she discovers that the suspicious deaths of two young offenders have not apparently been properly investigated by her deceased predecessor.
You might think that the flawed individual trying to right wrongs is a cliché in crime fiction, and you’d be right; but in this instance the conflicts Jenny has with both inner demons and corporate villains are entirely believable and gripping. The Coroner emerges, for all its 400-plus pages, as a real page-turner.
As an official who’s responsible for holding inquests into violent, sudden, or suspicious deaths Jenny has to confront not just rather graphic pathology reports but occasionally a post mortem. But worse than either are some of the humans she encounters: an aggressive local authority official, an obstructive pathologist, sneering lawyers and devious corporate types. She also has to contend with suspicious colleagues, distressed relatives and a critical ex-husband. Luckily she has individuals who she can turn to, if she can but trust them—an investigative journalist, a neighbourly dropout, a more sympathetic pathologist, even a hacker—but it’s those inner demons that too often stand in her way and, in particular, a childhood experience she’s understandably unwilling to contemplate.
The Coroner is a police procedural in all but name, lacking a police officer as its main protagonist: instead we have a lone official whose job is to investigate and ask pertinent questions in order to establish the truth surrounding unnatural deaths. The author is a former criminal barrister (there is a lovely bit of metafiction when Jenny, whose background is in family law, disparages criminal barristers) and so the legal, and sometimes illegal, processes which our coroner goes through have the ring of truth. Further, there is an undercurrent of politics here in implicit criticisms of a system that allows private delivery of a public service for profit, with subsequent lack of transparency and genuine accountability.
In addition, living as he does on the England/Wales border Matthew Hall is well aware of the rivalry between the two nations, and Jenny’s dual existence—living in Wales while working in Bristol and commuting over the old Severn Bridge—means that she has to successfully balance private life and public duty or risk disaster. The quiet Wye valley near Tintern is a world away from the busy streets and impersonal suburbs of a fictional Bristol region, but trouble seems to find her wherever she is.
Having such a fragile and, admittedly, at times irritating individual to head up a series (four novels so far) ensures we have some sympathy for her, but even as we will her to succeed we know that, although she may win one battle, the war with corruption and criminality will continue regardless. A clever and thoughtful piece of crime fiction, then, rather less a whodunit than a case of establishing how and why.
Among Matthew Hall’s writing credits is the recent hit BBC series Keeping Faith. A tv series of Coroner, transferred to a Canadian location, is now a production by Back Alley Films of Toronto for CBC and France’s TF1, with Serinda Swan in the title role. I read The Coroner for March’s Wales Readathon, Dewithon19.