By far one of the best xmas presents I got thirteen months ago was 'The Coroner' - the first book in M.R. Hall's Jenny Cooper series of crime novels. The note attached to the cover simply said, 'You're gonna love this.' And I did. So much so - I immediately dashed to my PC and downloaded the other two available books 'The Disappeared' and 'The Redeemed' to my Kindle as I was so impatient to get started on them. I finished these just in time for Hall's fourth novel 'The Flight' to be published. Then came the withdrawal symptoms. It's been a long year waiting for the fifth book in the series to appear with only a Jenny Cooper novella (The Innocent) to whet the appetite for the latest novel, 'The Chosen Dead' but it's finally going to be available on January 31st.
For those who haven't yet read M.R. Hall's books - Jenny Cooper is a coroner, part-judge, part inquisitor, whose job it is to determine the cause of death when required to do so. As an independent body, the coroner's office is answerable to neither the police or the government and the coroner holds the power to convene inquests and question witness's. This sort of literary landscape naturally allows Cooper to snoop around crime scenes and cause exteme discomfort to those who thought the bodies were safely buried either in soft earth or under reams of legal paperwork.
As an established screen writer, M.R. Hall's writing credits include, Kavanagh QC, Dalziel and Pasco, New Street Law, and Blue Murder among many others. Hall's experience in this field is most likely the contributing factor in keeping the reader's nose firmly pressed to the pages as the storyline unfolds like a snarling paper tiger. This is someone well-versed in pace, rhythm, and creating fascinating characters, as well as the dynamic relationship between dialogue and action. More importantly, M.R. Hall instinctively knows only too well when to pause for a commercial break or just the right place to end a chapter so you can go make a cup of tea to steady the nerves.
As usual, Strachan McQuade, was keen to hold his own inquest into M.R. Hall's writing. The verdict? You can find out for yourself below.
|Strachan McQuade R.I.P.|
McQuade: This week on Dead Man Talking I've hired a swanky courtroom to hold an official inquest into my own death and in particular - what weight of responsibility lies with M.R. Hall whose Jenny Cooper novels have made such a weighty impact on the reading public at large. So today I shall officiate as Public coroner and cross examine this M.R. Hall fellow to see what he has to say for himself. Time to get this show on the road.
McQuade enters the courtroom and bangs his gavel on the desk.
McQuade: All rise for his majesty the coroner! Thank you. Now sit down again, all except you, Hall. You can step into the witness box and answer some taxing questions. I imagine you’ll know the drill by now, so hop up and swear yourself in, or if you'd prefer, just state your star sign and favourite beat combo.
Hall: I thought you’d start with an easy one. I’ve got Bach, The Inkspots, AC/DC and LMFAO on my ipod, so what does that tell you? Stick Bon Scott, Django Reinhardt and Beethoven together and you might just hit my spot in one. Oh, and I’ve got a guilty sideline in Gospel Bluegrass. It’s niche, I know, but check out a little ensemble called Blueridge and tell me you’re not hooked.
McQuade. I sincerely doubt if Blueridge will come anywhere near the melodic genius of Kenneth McKellar but I’ll give them a spin on my radiogram and let you know. Very good, now the formalities have been taken care of - let’s commence with the hearing. And stand up straight please when I'm pontificating, Hall. I’ll have no slouching in my court room, thank you very much. Now, I'll be the first to grudgingly admit your fictional coroner, Jenny Cooper, is a smash-hit success, but let's be honest. The woman is a pill-popping, mentally unstable, divorcee with a taste for younger men and irresponsible driving. And to make matters worse - she's also a solicitor!
The courtroom erupts in indignant cat-calling forcing McQuade to bang quite a bit with his gavel.
McQuade: Silence in court! And would someone please remove that large gun-totting killer robot? I don’t permit Cylons in court either. Now then, Hall, in your own words, and without any coaching from your legal team, please tell me why you thought Cooper was a viable protagonist as opposed to, say - a respectable, happily married housewife who excels at home-baking and leaves difficult tasks like driving to her husband.
Hall: Jenny Cooper came at me out of the Wye Valley mist. When I sat down to write the first novel I thought it was going to be about a bloke called Jim Cooper who in my mind’s eye was a little bit like Jim Broadbent – a quiet, decent sort of chap who gets jolly niggled when he encounters an injustice being swept under the carpet. Then this woman turned up with a full set of baggage and took over. I just went with her because after ten years writing TV scripts to order, she as a liberating taste of freedom. Some readers ask if I’m in love with her. No, she’d be a bit too hot me for to handle.
McQuade: Jim Cooper? So she’s also had a sex change? By Jove! It just gets worse. Moving on, and I have to advise you that you are still under oath, please consider the following facts. Fact one. You spend much of your time writing from a woman's perspective. Fact two. If you speak aloud the initials M.R. very quickly it sounds like one of the Spice Girls. With that in mind, what sort of manly hobbies do you undertake to counterbalance this infusion of feminine frippery? I myself indulge in Kung-Fu Karate Cribbage which I've found reinforces my inner self image of myself as a physically robust yet intellectual ladies’ man. On the downside it does cost me quite a few bob replacing all those shattered cribbage boards.
Hall: Well, I live in a house surrounded with woods, and I spend most weekends with a pair of chainsaws cutting firewood (my pride and joy sports a monstrous 48 inch bar and 125cc engine) and a selection of axes. I’m also a bit of a hill running nut and hang out with a bunch of sweaty blokes called the Monross Trailblazers. Did the Snowdonia Marathon last year and doing another one in June. Also a bit of an amateur engineer – I run a hydro-electric turbine off my stream and am always tinkering with spanners and grease-guns. Currently sitting at my writing desk wearing a pair of steel toe-capped Husqvarna logging boots. And if you want more proof of manliness, I’ve just written a movie script called ‘Bareknuckle’ set in the bloody world of prize fighting circa 1810. I do however win prizes at the Llandogo village flower show most years, not least for ‘heads of hydrangea’.
McQuade: …………………… (speechless)
Hall: Manly enough for you?
McQuade: (blustering) Well, um, I suppose that’s an acceptable answer of sorts. It’s hardly Kung-Fu Karate Cribbage but I will make a note that the court recognises your inherent manliness, although the village flower show confession may have been a mistake. Now, I do so enjoy reading about Cooper's buxom assistant, Alison, who constantly strives to keep her drug-addled boss on the straight and narrow, and isn't afraid to tick Cooper off when she's being impertinent and disrespectful to police officers above the rank of detective sergeant. I do find this bosomy Alison character a most alluring creature and wondered if she was based on any particular real-life female as I believe I could show her a good time by escorting her to shinty matches and garden-centre tea rooms. So then, Hall. Is she real? And can you pass on my PO Box number?
Hall: She would certainly give you a good time if you treated her nicely, I’m sure – she’s currently on the look-out for a better offer. Alison isn’t based on anyone in particular, rather she’s like some female detectives I came across in my very earliest incarnation as a criminal barrister – a bit conservative, doesn’t like to step outside the rules and hates any woman more than a few pounds lighter than she is. Alison has still got it and is determined to hang on to it. I will endeavour to help her. Be prepared for a shock in The Chosen Dead, though – Alison features heavily in its climax.
McQuade: Climax? Stop being sexually provocative, Hall. I still consider myself to be a man of the cloth and the church of Scotland doesn’t approve of women, especially a buxom temptress like Alison, being associated with climaxes of any sort. It’s indecent and ungodly. My best selling book 'Invergallus' contains no climax of any description and reads all the better for it.
Feel free to accept council from your QC before answering my next question. As a screen writer well used to seeing your creations come to life on the small screen, I assume you have your own short-list as to whom would be the perfect actress to bring Jenny Cooper to life. I myself can easily imagine Scottish pop singer, Moira Anderson, (with the benefit of heavy make-up) playing the role. But this is obviously a subjective preference - so tell me Hall, who is currently on your flaky-coroner radar to undertake the role?
McQuade: Can’t say I noticed. The subtle nuances between Gloucester, Somerset (and even Baltimore) accents are as confounding and mysterious to me as the ritualistic dogma of the Catholic church. One last question and then we'll break for lunch and perhaps a bit of a lie down if I have pudding. Your latest Jenny Cooper novel 'The Chosen Dead' is published at the end of January (AD 2013). Can we expect to see Cooper continuing with her gadabout lifestyle and narrowly avoiding serious traffic accidents through sheer luck and happenstance rather than skillful driving manoeuvres? - or will she be a reformed character and at least give poor assistant Allison a wage rise and a clothing allowance? In other words, please state for the benefit of the public what the book is all about.
Hall: Funny you should mention car accidents – there is one! I had better watch that tendency in the book I’m currently writing. The Chosen Dead starts with the assassination of an entrepreneurial microbiologist in 1982, skips to the bloody defection of a Soviet scientist in 1989, and collides both events with the present when Jenny investigates a fatal plunge from a motorway bridge. Jenny’s gadding goes into overdrive as she discovers some very spooky connections that lead her into the world of biotech and its close cousin bio-weaponry. My expert advisers started out very enthusiastically, but gathered up their skirts in fright and ran for the hills when the story premise they helped me create actually went down on the page. I scared myself researching this one and learned far more than I wanted to about the many ways in which we might one day wipe each other out.
McQuade: I do hope that’s not a veiled threat, Hall. I’ll take the liberty to point out that nasty microbes pose me no danger whatsoever as I’ve already shuffled off my mortal coil and indeed, am considered by some to be a potent bio-weapon on my own. However – I must thank you for your time. Don’t forget to claim your lunch expenses. Additionally, we always like to give our interviewees a small gift. By sheer co-incidence I have this 24 foot chainsaw which I bought by mistake from Ebay. Thought I’d ordered a luxury rickshaw. So have fun with it and always remember to observe the safety instructions.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (sound of chainsaw)
McQuade: No! Don’t start it up in here, Hall! That blade hasn’t been secured properly and ……………… Oh. Very messy. Could someone please hose down the witness box. Just put the bits in a box and we’ll sort them out later. If his agent calls we’ll deny everything. The verdict is misadventure. Court dismissed. Run!
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