Jenny Cooper isn’t your normal heroine.
The attractive coroner for the Severn Vale District in England is divorced, lives with her indolent teenage son, struggles with opposite-sex relationships and battles loneliness.
And she has an addiction to prescription medication, including beta-blockers and Xanax (“Thank God for drugs. Thank God,” she mutters in one scene).
But she is a top-notch coroner who has strong investigative skills and has a passion to see justice served, no matter what the cost.
In Cooper, British author M.R. Hall has created an intelligent, sympathetic character whose vulnerabilities threaten to overwhelm her. But when she goes up against the powers-that-be, she manages to rise to the occasion, even if things aren’t neatly wrapped in a bow at the end.
"Embarrass us and we’ll rubbish you," Cooper is warned by an officer of the British Security Services.
Cooper makes her debut in Hall’s crime novel “Disappeared,” and comparisons inevitably will be made to the famous American forensic detective Kay Scarpetta of Patricia Cornwell’s best-selling novels. There are some similarities; even the inside of the dust jacket cover begins with an acknowledgment: “In the bestselling tradition of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta …”
However, there are definitely some differences, which are too numerous to list here. Cooper is distinctly British, and the story is told from her third-person perspective.
Only six months on the job, Cooper stumbles onto the case of two young Muslim students, Nazim Jamal and Rafi Hassan, who mysteriously vanished in the summer of 2002. Those were the fearful months following the American terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, and authorities in the U.S. and Europe, especially the United Kingdom, had their eye on many Muslim students. Jamal and Hassan were two of them; police later concluded that they had fled to Pakistan. But there was little evidence for that, and the mystery has only grown since then.
It’s seven years later, and under British law, Cooper is allowed to legally declare them dead. Jamal’s mother comes to Cooper and wants some finality to the case. Moved by the mother’s love for her son, Cooper decides to hold an inquest to find out what happened to Jamal and Hassan once and for all. But to get there, where witness testimony could prove damaging to the government and the local Muslim community, Cooper has to conduct her own private investigation.
Of course, things don’t go as planned. The mystery deepens, and there are a few surprises. Cooper seems to have bitten off more than she can chew.
To his credit, Hall doesn’t go off on too many wild subplots, but a couple of them could’ve been pared down or eliminated. The plot, which takes a little while to catch fire, is well paced and realistic (however, no media were covering the protests outside the building where the inquest was held? Definitely not believable). The cast of characters around Cooper, including her assistant Alison Trent
and her troubled son Ross, are a bit shallow, but hopefully they’ll be better developed in future installments. It appears Hall is leaning toward creating character-driven stories, which is a good sign.
“The Disappeared” is a satisfying story, considering it’s Hall’s second novel. Hall and Cooper should have a bright future together.