Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Disappeared" by M.R. Hall

Plot Summary: Still raw from an acrimonious divorce, former lawyer Jenny Cooper pops pills to control anxiety as she slowly adjusts to her new career as the coroner for the Severn Vale District, near Bristol, England, in Hall's solid U.S. debut. When a distraught mother asks Cooper to hold an inquest to declare her son legally dead, Cooper is hesitant to take the case. Nazim Jamal and a friend disappeared seven years earlier while at university and, according to the police, probably fled to Afghanistan to join al-Qaeda at the urging of a radical mosque. Nazim's mother is adamant her son was not an extremist. As Cooper's investigation broadens, she's met with resistance not only from the police but also MI5, who claim Nazim's disappearance may have national security implications.

There are a few things you need to know that will either help you decide whether to get this book or increase your understanding of it once you start to read.

The publishers compare it to a series that I don’t think it really fits. The book jacket starts out with the phrase: “In the bestselling tradition of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series….” I chose this book largely on the basis of that comparison and it is nothing like the Scarpetta series. The character Kay Scarpetta is (at least for most of the series) a medical examiner and is a forensic pathologist by training – the person who does the autopsies to determine the medico-legal cause of death. In the UK, a coroner is a judicial officer and must, like Jenny Cooper the protagonist of this book, be a lawyer. She has a pathologist to do the medical investigation.

So the first thing to know is that this book is more like a legal mystery than anything else. If you are looking for a medical/forensics mystery, you won’t find it here. This is more of a missing persons case. Jenny Cooper has been the county coroner in the Severn Vale District for six months. Two young men disappeared years ago and have been declared legally dead; the mother of one of them asks Jenny Cooper to hold an inquest to determine what happened. The book is about the inquest she holds as coroner and her attempts to discover the truth despite many obstacles put in her way.

The second thing to know relates to the ethnic labels we use in the US that are different than what use in the UK. The missing young Muslim men and others of similar ethnic origin are often referred to in the book as “Asians.” I was puzzled enough to email the author for clarification. He wrote back and told me that 'Asian' in Britain is usually used to describe those of Indian or Pakistani origin. If US readers keep this in mind as they read, they’ll get a more accurate mental picture of the characters.

I struggled with another aspect of the book. I like female protagonists who are strong and smart. Jenny Cooper is a wreck. She takes pills just to cope with her everyday life and is emotionally fragile. Her teenage son lives with her after her divorce and they have a rocky relationship. Often portions of the book concerning her emotional state overshadowed the mystery part of the plot and it wasn’t as much fun to read. I had almost decided not to read any other books in the series (the first book is "The Coroner") when I got to the epilogue and read the bombshell there. I won’t spoil anything about the book but it looks like Jenny could be a lot more interesting than I expected. I’m still not sure I want to read the first book but will look for the next one in the series before I make up my mind about the character.

Note:  I received a free copy of this book from Amazon as part of the Vine review program.

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