The main character of THE CORONER is not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she a woman in the full process of breaking apart. This is one of the many factors that makes this book such a compelling, fascinating, almost voyeuristic read, as we wait with bated breath to see if Jenny Cooper will crash before she solves the crime.
As this assured novel opens, Jenny takes up her job as Coroner in Severn Vale District, on the English side of the Wales-Bristol border. She's recently divorced from David, a typical selfish, ambitious surgeon, who has custody of their teenage son Ross. Jenny is addicted to temazepan. She's been in therapy and although she shrugs off her treatment at the start of the novel, she's aware of some unacknowledged, unremembered trauma in her childhood which is central to her fragile state of mind.
After years as a lawyer in the child services, Jenny has taken her new job as a way to rejuvenate and recover. When she arrives at her new office, however, she does not find a welcoming committee. Harry Marshall, the previous Coroner for the region, has suddenly died of a coronary, and Jenny finds his office disorganised and dishevelled. There is no computer system, the place is falling apart, and the only assistant, Alison, operates out of the local police station – a situation that Jenny strongly feels compromises the independence of her office.
Rapidly acting to address all these details, Jenny immediately rubs up against Alison. One of the many pleasures of this book is the relationship between these two middle-aged women who have very different attitudes and education, yet while circling each other suspiciously over the running of the office, questions of loyalty to the dead previous incumbent, and the decorating, they come to realise they share common values concerning the truth.
The first part of the book focuses on Jenny's personality disintegration, conveying in a convincing way her internal conflicts and struggles while she maintains a professional facade – she's an addict in various ways, she's setting up in a new home in the aftermath of the wreckage of her marriage, and is trying to assert her control over her new domain despite an entrenched network of comfortable, mainly male, deals and compromises.
While all this is going on, the workload of reported deaths continues. Jenny isn't happy about the case of Katy Taylor, a teenager who has been found dead in a remote spot, apparently as a result of a heroin overdose. The girl was a known addict, but several things about the case don't fit. It is clear that Harry Marshall was investigating the circumstances until a few days before his death, but then certified Katy's demise without question – but, strangely, has left the file in a locked drawer in his desk. A journalist contacts Jenny about another case, that of another teenager called Danny who has committed suicide in a nearby young offenders' institution (aka privately owned prison). The boy's mother, a feckless dropout who has many children by as many fathers, is not satisfied by the official verdict, as she insists that her son was depressed but that nobody among the panoply of social workers, councillors, police and others would do anything to help.
The second half of the book, having established Jenny's character and circumstances, focuses on these two cases and cranks up the speed. Jenny is determined to do the right thing by the two dead youngsters, confronting an assorted range of professionals – the pathologist, the county council, the social worker, the police and others in her drive to arrive at the truth. As her investigation continues, she realises how implacable and heartless is her opposition. Yet she is undeterred, collecting together a rag-bag assortment of initially reluctant supporters.
THE CORONER is a marvellous book replete with authentic details – about the coroner's role, the court and the bureaucratic and political day-to-day manoeuvrings of the job – while at the same time being pacy and rich in characterisation and in the dynamics between characters. Jenny is an attractive heroine – a middle-aged woman – who mainly interacts with another middle-aged woman, her assistant Alison – who don't realise they are on the same side for some time but who gradually develop a common understanding and, once they have dropped their initial mistrust and suspicion of each other, a mutual respect. Jenny's personal life adds another dimension: her new start in rural Wales, and how she copes with her insufferable ex-husband in order to communicate with her son and to enable him to make his own choices rather than be railroaded by his father into a career as a doctor.
Jenny's addiction is a theme running throughout all these threads – her constant sense of falling over the precipice, her unease at the knowledge people have of her failings, her drive to control the investigation and her refusal to be browbeaten – are all shown through a haze of mental confusion and panic. As the book reaches its climax, there is a lovely Welsh nationalism aspect that strongly influences both Jenny's career and the outcome of the case.
The author's sympathy with the poor lost children condemned to a cruel fate in young offenders' institutions, where society can forget about them and where privatisation and the profit motive conspire to push them even further down their spirals of doom, resonates. The assured descriptions of the details and machinations of the local judicial systems are one of many absorbing aspects of this book. THE CORONER is a superb debut novel. I assume, and hope, that the author will continue writing about his engaging main character, her life, circumstances and cases.