The Chosen Dead, By MR Hall. Mantle, £12.99


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The Independent Culture

It is fortunate that most of us are not placed in the position of having to sacrifice our happiness in an ongoing battle with corruption. MR Hall's coroner heroine Jenny Cooper would clearly be sympathetic to Tolstoy's notion that his hero was truth – though the pursuit of truth has cost her dearly, and her fragile mental state has been stretched ever tighter over the course of five increasingly impressive books. The new one is slightly different in that Hall places his stress on a particularly intricate narrative rather than on the mental travails of his beleaguered, substance-abusing protagonist.

Without the support of her usual mainstay and colleague Alison (herself going through a bad time), Jenny is in pursuit of the facts behind a case of meningitis which has taken the life of a friend's child. Steered by her pompous consultant ex-husband, David, she uncovers what appears to be a hospital conspiracy – while looking into the unexplained death of an aid worker who has returned from Africa before falling from a high bridge. As Jenny peels back the layers of obfuscation, she finds herself coming up against the customary wall of indifference and hostility presented by government bodies. Even though the reader knows it will take nearly 500 pages, Jenny will – as ever – be vindicated.

In real life, most of us roll our eyes at the conspiracy theories trotted out by the paranoid, but readers of crime fiction have to accept such things as de rigueur. A belief in the slew of nasty cover-ups at the heart of the genre is as essential as a temporary belief in the existence of the Greek gods when watching Medea or Oedipus Rex. And those grandiose comparisons are not entirely inappropriate; Hall is undoubtedly one of the more ambitious of crime writers, giving his books a texture that is both nuanced and persuasive.

Frankly, the obdurate Jenny has sorely tested our patience, and it's agreeable that Hall makes her less exasperating than usual here. If the new book does not quite have the panache of the last, The Flight, followers of the stubborn Ms Cooper will still be happy.