Written by MR Hall — Every so often, I’m lucky enough to read a book which pulls me in so tightly that I don’t want it to end – the sort of book where you find yourself slowing on the last few pages, just to prolong the enjoyment that bit more. The Chosen Dead is such a book, and it had me in its thrall from the first chapter.
It is the fifth in a series featuring coroner Jenny Cooper, although at this point I have to confess that I’m new to Jenny, and to author MR Hall. Jenny is a fascinating character. She’s determined, dogged and plain pig headed, but also vulnerable and prone to deep-seated feelings of doubt and despair. It’s a heady combination, and she is an unlikely heroine, but one to whom I soon warmed. Hall is a BAFTA-nominated TV screenwriter, and he uses his skills to the maximum here, painting an almost televisual picture of Bristol and its surroundings, and breathing life into characters that fair leap off the page.
The story starts in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1982, when a doting father – who also happens to be a big cheese in the burgeoning bio-tech industry – is taken from the sidelines of his daughter’s junior softball game, never to be seen again. Then we move to Berlin in 1989 where, just as the wall is about to come down, a Russian professor defects to the West, carrying with him some valuable research.
Jump to Bristol in the present day, where Jenny is called to the site of an apparent suicide. A young father, recently returned from doing aid work in a remote part of Africa, has plunged from a motorway bridge to a horrible death amid the rush hour traffic. But did he jump or was he pushed?
Her workload increases with the sudden death of a friend’s teenage daughter with a rare and seemingly drug-resistant strain of meningitis. Little suspecting there could be a connection between the two cases, Jenny’s determination to learn the truth ultimately threatens her job, her family and even her sanity as she battles the powers that be, and is inexorably drawn into a mystery which spans continents and decades. In the course of her investigation, she dextrously connects all of the story threads in a most satisfying fashion.
Male author MR Hall has certainly got the inside track on the female psyche, and in Jenny he painstakingly builds a wholly convincing portrait of a woman who has reached the top of her profession, but who is also struggling with nagging uncertainties about her personal life. Jenny’s stalwart assistant, Alison, is also neatly captured.
I was intrigued at the idea of having a coroner as central character, but any worries that I had about the job being dull and deskbound were soon dispelled. I also found the processes leading to an inquest surprisingly fascinating, and the book has a forensics side to it that will certainly appeal to fans of Kathy Reichs, for instance. A former criminal barrister, Hall obviously knows his subject well and is to be congratulated on the amount of research which must have gone into creating this intricately plotted and hugely enjoyable book.
As I write this, it haunts me still – and surely there’s no higher praise than that?
The Chosen Dead is released 31 January.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars