Title: The Coroner
Author: M R Hall
Publisher: Macmillan 
No. of pages: 422
Jenny Cooper is the newly appointed Coroner for the Severn Vale district of England. Her predecessor died suddenly after dealing with the deaths of two young teenagers who had both spent time in a local youth correctional facility. One, a young boy, was reported to have committed suicide while at the institution and a young girl died seemingly of a heroin overdose shortly after her own stint in the same place. Cooper, recently divorced and recovering from a breakdown and the onset of anxiety attacks, becomes convinced that something untoward led to the two cases being closed so quickly and decides to re-open the investigations.
The book doesn’t fit neatly into any of the established crime fiction sub genres as it tackles the solving of crime from the perspective of a Coroner which, in England, is still a purely legal position similar to a judge or magistrate (in the US the role has in many jurisdictions merged the legal aspects of the job with the medical examiner’s duties). The book does a great job of highlighting this rather unique role in modern justice where the only goal is to determine a person’s cause of death and any criminal charges that might arise from that finding are someone else’s responsibility. Hall does maintain a decent level of tension and interest in what could have become a dry subject bogged down in legal minutiae.
My problem with the plot didn’t lie in the legal details but rather in what felt to me like a bit of overly forced leading of readers down an emotional path. The victims are depicted in a fairly one-dimensional and stereotypical way. The only sense we’re given of them is that they were both troubled, the young boy who died while in custody particularly so, but there’s no real sense of them as individuals. Occasional passages showing the young boy’s mother to be less than perfect, although loving, seemed to have been inserted almost as a dare to readers, and indeed to Cooper herself, to be anything other than outraged at the treatment of the young people. However it always felt like Cooper’s primary goal was her own crusade to get her life back together and the book didn’t give me enough to develop anything more than a detached curiosity about the resolution of the investigations. It tried, I think, to build a real sense of the injustices that can occur within a poorly funded justice system where no one is overtly evil but everyone is too consumed with protecting their own interests than in finding out the truth but I never quite bought it.
The female characters in this book are well developed and depicted. Jenny Cooper’s struggle to function normally while dealing with her depression and anxiety is very credibly portrayed. At times in her professional work however she’s utterly naïve and as petulant as a 4-year old which I found pretty unrealistic for someone who is supposed to have been a family lawyer in the public system for 15 years. Having divorced her controlling husband and barely maintaining a relationship with her own teenage son she develops some new relationships with other women including Alison, her Court Officer who she treats quite shabbily to begin with, and a journalist whose been looking into one of the cases that Cooper decides to re-open. Her supposed love interest, Steve the ageing hippy, didn’t really ring true for me and in fact most of the men are either evil, incompetent or irrelevant which is interesting for a book written by a bloke (cannily using his initials to disguise that fact).
I first added this book to my ‘must read’ list after hearing it discussed with much praise on the BBC 5 Live Books Podcast back in January. This undoubtedly led to me having quite high expectations which is something I try to avoid because, as happened here, the book didn’t quite live up to them. It was by no means bad, and I’ll certainly look out for the next one in the series which is apparently due out in December, but I did feel that parts of the plot were designed too pointedly to elicit outrage without much genuine emotion on offer within the story itself. However the portrayal of a little-known arm of the judicial system was first rate and I think Hall has a real ability to create interesting characters, at least female ones.
My rating 3.5/5
For a different view of this fascinating role within our judicial systems you could try one of my favourite Aussie crime shows on TV. State Coroner ran for two seasons in the late 1990’s and took place in a fictional state Coroner’s Court. It has some fine Aussie Actors (Wendy Hughes in the title role) and the first season is available on DVD for those interested.