Our insatiable hunger for crime fiction has caused every backwater in the world of law and order to be ransacked by authors in search of characters on whom to hang a best-seller or television series.
If I make the process sound calculated, that is often how it comes over in the finished product, but not in Matthew Hall's first-rate books about unorthodox Bristol coroner Jenny Cooper. The Flight is Cooper's fourth outing and Hall's Gold Dagger-nominated books, quite simply, get better each time.
Part of it is the former barrister and TV producer's ability to structure and deliver a thriller that has you keep turning the pages. I read The Flight, as its predecessors, at one sitting. But Hall has also hit upon a genuinely fascinating aspect of the justice system – the independent role of the coroner since the 12th century to determine the cause of death of individuals within their jurisdiction. In The Flight, Cooper's territory touches the scene of a major air disaster, after one of the new generation of super-jumbos mysteriously ditches in the Bristol Channel with no survivors.
The most compelling element of Hall's books, however, is Cooper herself: difficult, damaged, self-destructive, struggling to recover from a divorce that has left her alienated from her teenage son, and prone to panic attacks whose causes are gradually investigated during her regular sessions on the psychiatrist's couch. All the qualities that make her a tenacious champion of the bereaved against a system that too often silences them, also make her an uncomfortable mother, partner, boss or friend. She is emotional rather than logical, intuitive and challenging when challenged. In other words she is real, recognisable and three- dimensional, rather than an amalgam of qualities chosen to make for a good plot.
And so, there is a beguiling psychological tension at the heart of his novels that is building Hall a dedicated following (plus talk of a TV series). In Flight, the fragile but forceful Cooper almost goes along with the cover-up orchestrated by an establishment that tries to persuade her that "national security" is at stake. But a grieving mother's insistent demand to know how her 10-year-old daughter died chimes with Cooper's own complicated past, and leads her into a labyrinth of international business dirty tricks and cyber-terrorism.
It is wonderful stuff, chillingly plausible, but probably best not read on a long-haul flight.