Are you getting weary of forensic pathologists? Writers and TV producers have become pathologist-happy: the profession, on page and screen, has blossomed, and we encounter legions of clue-sifting medical examiners, mostly female.
Ed McBain semi-inaugurated the forensics genre, but Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs parleyed his innovations into stratospheric sales. But the field has not become an exclusively female sorority – or an American domain. A highly talented male writer has offered a challenge, albeit one who plays safe by using a woman protagonist.
The Coroner (2009) by M R Hall was an instant hit. His heroine Jenny Cooper, a divorcée who has had a nervous breakdown, struggled with a new job as coroner for the Severn Vale. In the new book, her fourth outing, the eponymous flight is that of a plane that has crashed into the Severn estuary, wiping out its passengers: a particularly prestigious assembly. Another inadvertent casualty appears to be a solitary sailor whose boat was sunk. But when his body washes up, alongside it is that of 10-year-old Amy Patterson, listed as a passenger on the plane.
Jenny Cooper finds that the girl appears to bear no injuries from the crash: she died separately, several hours later. The crash investigation is carried out under conditions of the greatest secrecy. Jenny’s attempts to find out who is behind what appears to be a cover-up are further complicated by the dead girl’s mother, insistent that Jenny finds out the truth.
It would appear that Hall has decided to broaden his canvas with this latest outing for his protagonist, still dependent on prescription drugs. She is coming to terms with the breakdown that we read about in The Coroner, but still fragile.
Here, she is up against her most dangerously influential opponents. But the risky strategy of maximising the odds against her pays off, and we are never given the dispiriting impression that the rules of blockbuster thrillers have been trotted out as a result of some editor’s commercial suggestion. The book remains personal, despite its larger concerns. It looks like Jenny Cooper – and her creator – are here for the long haul: good news for readers.