Tuesday, 19 January 2010

"The Disappeared", M. R. Hall

Fittingly, a book purchased at Gatwick on way out to Dubai has been read and finished completely within the UK after coming back. It's been a pleasing companion, if nothing else, quite fittingly passing the time in Lewisham Hospital's A&E department.

More than usually this is a curates egg of a book. For one that's gripped throughout and been a thoroughly enjoyable read M. R. Hall's second novel still leaves one or two many niggles to get the ringing endorsement I might otherwise be pleased to give it.

The story rattles along engagingly, the universe created is engaging, and the persona of the coroner, Jenny Cooper is one who it's easy to care about. While reading the pace of the plot readily papers over a lot of the cracks in the book that further reflection starts to reveal.

Ultimately I suspect that like many other crime writers, Hall, in weaving a terrorism / espionage plot together is trying something that stretches outside their comfort zone, and the overall result is one that doesn't quite work. Her first work, "The Coroner" skated on the edge of plausibility, sadly "The Disappeared" just ends up on the wrong side of that boundary. In particular the denouement feels rushed and ultimately confused and is possibly the least satisfying element of the book.

There are further problems in characterisation. Roguish lawyer Alec MacEvoy simply isn't credible and far too much is left entirely unexplained about him. In attempting to give him complex hidden depths Hall has really ended up creating a comic book style character whose role appears to be to introduce critical clues along the way and keep the plot moving along. Continuing in this vein, there are too many characters in the cast to readily keep track of, tidying up who did what to whom would have been a highly worthwhile exercise.

Ultimately however the real problem with "The Disappeared" is in fact a problem with the UK coroner system. Coroners should be impartial judges facilitating a process whereby cause of death is established. In the UK they have become politicised, having an agenda of their own, and blurring the line between investigator and judge. Judges should be conspicuous in their impartiality and when they stop problems arise - as shown by the excesses of Mr Justice Eady in applying the laws of libel. The world provided by M. R. Hall is one where this is seen as a virtue, where Jenny Cooper is styled as single handedly providing a bulwark against the conspiracies of the state. Is it really credible that a lone coroner is able to see what the multitude of established intelligence and policing functions can't?

Perhaps it would have been better to read this on an aircraft. It's a highly readable book and in an environment where you're not moved to deconstruct it too much it functions well. To reiterate, the personal story of Jenny Cooper is engaging, and the concluding sentence is comfortably enough to make you want to read the next instalment. This series is almost brilliant, if the status of 'coroner' could be reined in ever so slightly it might get there.


  1. I read this book a month or two ago in proof, and my review is out today (Sunday 24 Jan) at Euro Crime. I also feel mixed about it. I love the character of Jenny but I feel that this novel, unlike the excellent debut The Coroner, is too much of a spy/thriller (and too complicated - who would remember someone who had driven over the Severn Bridge years ago in a dark van?). I think the series has great potential but "less is more" and I'd prefer the author to continue developing the character of Jenny and focusing on the strange coroner system (which I find fascinatingly bizarre) and less of the Spycatcher/Spooks stuff.

  2. Thanks for the comment Maxine - there seems to be an issue when traditional 'crime' writers try and do espionage thrillers. A great example of this was Peter Robinson's dalliance with Interpol, which was particularly awful.

    Hall's got the makings of something really good here - a decent strong editor should be able to get to grips with this and get it into the shape where it stops being quite such a mixed experience and becomes really impressive.