Body of evidence

M.R.Hall's first writing job was for TV series Kavanagh QC. He now explores the gruesome side of coroners' work in his Jenny Cooper novels, as he tells WLTB.

Q: Where does your crime fiction interest come from?
A: I lived with my mother and her partner, author and screenwriter G.F. Newman. Despite being a more than slightly hedonistic teenager, I got to Worcester College, Oxford, and studied law, and did a few years at the criminal bar but ultimately was too thin-skinned for that world. I started writing more or less immediately I qualified as a barrister, and after about five years got a break in writing for TV. My first writing job was for the ITV series Kavanagh QC.

Q: Why did you choose to make Jenny Cooper a medical expert?
A: Jenny is a coroner. Coroners are unique in the British judicial system in being required to find out the truth concerning the circumstances of an unnatural death, which makes them part judge, part investigator, part forensic expert. The real allure for me is that they are relatively minor officials, not paid that much and limited to their small local territory. Yet when the occasion demands they can play David against Goliath, ordering the police to carry our enquiries on their behalf and calling governments and even foreign powers to account in their obscure provincial court rooms.

I’m passionate about the principle of justice belonging to the people in whose name it’s carried out: the office of coroner embodies this.

Q: Were you trying to do something different in the field?
A: Not consciously, though I was aware perhaps that Jenny Cooper was a slightly different kind of protagonist. She suffers – as I once did – from acute anxiety, which in her case has its roots in a long-buried trauma. She manages her condition the white-knuckle way, with a lot of self-administered medication. This places her right on the edge, a place which a lot of people recognise, and which a lot might find uncomfortable. I was trying to bring some real, hard emotional truth to a central character in a popular genre.

Q: How difficult do you find writing a female protagonist?
A: Writing a female character as a man has allowed me perhaps to write in quite a personal way while maintaining a degree of distance. I relate to her as someone desperate to see justice done, but aware that whenever the stakes are high for powerful people, huge forces come in to play.

Q: Do you research real-life forensic situations?
A: I use research with pathologists and coroners to make sure that I’m always accurate. Part of the problem I face is that real-life cases can often be too distractingly horrific for the purposes of fiction. It’s always a fine line between serving the purposes of the story and becoming prurient.

I remember going on one research trip to a hospital mortuary and it was quite horrific... I blundered into [a] Chapel of Rest – and without warning the pathologist started whipping back the plastic on a succession of bodies. I came home spinning.

Q: How much of M.R. Hall may be found in Jenny Cooper?
A: There’s quite a lot of me in Jenny Cooper, but equally there’s a lot in Jenny which is pure invention. As a man writing a woman, I am aware that she provides a way into a part of my consciousness that otherwise might remain unexplored. You can be quite macho – I chop down trees in my woods and do fell-running races – but also have a gentler side, an anima, if you like.

I can trace it back directly to the years I spent (literally) help nurse my grandfather: my head should have been filled with rugby and football at that formative time, but I was taken up with trying to make things bearable for my grandparents. What I can access through Jenny is the empathetic side of my nature – if I wrote a man with these characteristics he might come across as too soft and not admirable.

Q: What has been your reaction to the real-life forensics you have witnessed?
A: I have still not fully come to terms with the post-mortem process, but have huge admiration for the men and women who can work alone at night in a mortuary with only the dead for company.

Q: How do differ from your peers?
A: I am obviously slightly different in that I am the only one writing about a coroner (so far as I am aware), but I like to think my books take as their subjects serious or provocative subjects that might also be dealt with in other genres. My second book, The Disappeared, deals with the radicalisation of young Muslim men (a subject which has interested me since the 1990s), and The Redeemed deals with the complex cross-over between charismatic religion and suppressed sexuality. The book I am currently working on has a very dark and political theme which delves into the worlds of biological warfare and gene technology. The manuscript I have just completed is a detailed forensic investigation of what brought down a huge airliner – a Titanic of the skies if you like.

I use forensic crime stories as a means of exploring a diverse range of areas that intrigue me. I want readers to feel that they have learned something new about a subject as well as having been entertained.

M.R.Hall is the author of The Redeemed, published by Mantle.