Book Quote:

“She drew a certain comfort from dealing with others’ unimaginable traumas with professional detachment. Being a coroner had given her an illusion of control and immortality. While Jenny Cooper the forty-two year old woman was still struggling to stay sane and sober, Jenny Cooper the coroner had come to enjoy her job.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (APR 27, 2011)

M.R. Hall has written an intriguing  thriller. Its protagonist, Jenny Cooper, is a coroner for England’s Severn Vale District, close to South Wales. As the book opens, Jenny is just six months into her job. Prior to being named coroner, she was a practicing attorney. In the United Kingdom, the coroner is “independent and answers only to the Lord Chancellor.” This gives Jenny a lot of power to pursue cases and hold inquests. She is not accountable to the police or the Special Services.

Shortly after the story opens, Jenny is contacted by the mother of Nazim Jamal, a young Muslim student who had mysteriously disappeared from his university seven years ago. Mrs. Jamal is histrionic and paranoid, claiming that there are people following her, cars waiting outside her apartment and that there was something very fishy about Nazim’s disappearance. His body was never found and the High Court has declared Nazim “presumed dead.” Jenny decides to open an inquest into his death partly because of Mrs. Jamal’s grief and partly because there are a lot of unanswered questions.

The government maintains that Nazim was part of a radical Muslim cell that advocated terrorism and that he decided to go to Afghanistan to pursue his political leanings. Jenny does not see evidence pointing to this despite some vague and shallow testimony that he was seen on a railroad car heading to London with a friend seven years ago. Jenny receives call after call from Mrs. Jamal, begging her to find her son and also expressing fears of her own. In her own office, Jenny feels a strong tension coming from her assistant Allison who is not fond of Muslims. Allison once worked for the police department and is afraid that the efforts that the police once made on this case will be undermined during the inquest.

Jenny herself is struggling in her personal life. She has custody of her teenage son, Ross, and there is a lot of tension between them. Jenny is also seeing a psychiatrist for panic attacks. She had been dependent on xanax and alcohol and is now taking beta blockers and has been weaned off of tranquilizers and alcohol. Her panic varies day to day depending on the stress she is under. She is seeing a man named Steve and the relationship is still not defined. It is hard for Jenny to commit to someone else when she is so confused about her own self.

The inquest takes many surprising turns, especially once the Special Services and M-15 become involved. They do not want Jenny to pursue this case and put a lot of obstacles in her path. As the case progresses, Jenny begins to see that Mrs. Jamal’s fears are quite real and that there is a good reason for her seeming paranoia. Jenny also meets Mrs. Jamal’s ex-solicitor, who is now a disbarred lawyer. He is a larger than life figure but has an edge of seediness to him. He appears to know a lot about this case and attests that he lost his solicitor’s license because he delved too deeply into the disappearance of Nazim Jamal.

Jenny tracks down witnesses, looks for old evidence both true and false, and tries to find suspects for the kidnaping. This is where the book falters. Though Jenny’s character is well drawn out and the reader has a real sense of who she is, it is hard to follow certain aspects of the case or get a sense of how the witnesses come to play in this intrigue. They are not given much substance and their connections to one another are vague. The strength of this book is in the characterization of Jenny and her role as coroner.

As Jenny pursues the inquest, she faces one obstacle after another. Somehow, she manages to garner enough inner strength to continue her efforts on the case and maintain her personal life. She begins to act more like a detective than a coroner, much like Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta. The reader gets thrown one surprise after another and, as the case unfolds, there are a lot of interesting surprises in store.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 40 readers
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (April 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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April 27, 2011 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Posted in: Reading Guide, Sleuths Series, United Kingdom