The Disappeared, By M R Hall

Gripping tale of a mother's courage
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The Independent Culture

There is a political edge to the former barrister and screenwriter Matthew Hall's thrillers.

His first, published last year after he had grown disillusioned with the formulaic take on crime demanded by TV commissioners, highlighted failings in both private prisons and the treatment of youngsters in custody. The Coroner won him a Gold Dagger nomination from the Crime Writers' Association; The Disappeared is just as accomplished and challenging.

Reprising the same central character, campaigning coroner Jenny Cooper, it pits her against the British and American security services when she answers a distraught mother's pleas for an inquest into the death of her son, missing for over seven years. Nazim Jamal, police have concluded, had become involved with radical Muslim groups and went to Afghanistan to fight. Mrs Jamal is convinced this version of events is false and relies on a caricature of young British Muslim men.

Cooper starts off trying to give some sort of comfort to a distraught mother, but soon realises that the official explanation makes no sense. Using the powers vested in her ancient office, she searches out a more plausible explanation. In an age of extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay and evidence of official complicity in the use of torture, this is a compelling and timely tale.

It is Cooper, though, who is the beating heart of these books. Her prejudices and instinctive reactions link events with the political agenda. And her frailties – she is a fortysomething divorcée, prone to panic attacks whose cause lies buried in her half-glimpsed childhood trauma – engage you on an emotional level.

High-mindedness can be too heavy a burden for some thrillers to carry. Equally, literary ambitions – Hall has a particular knack for conjuring up landscapes – can get in the way of narrative thrust. But The Disappeared avoids both traps triumphantly. And there is a certain irony in the fact that the success of his first book is leading Hall back to TV: Jenny Cooper is being prepared for a small-screen debut.