Book review: The Burning by M. R. Hall

Clear the diary and cancel the papers… the latest gripping instalment of M. R. Hall’s Coroner Jenny Cooper crime series won’t leave time for anything until the last page has turned.

Monday, 24th February 2014, 9:00 am
The Burning by M. R. Hall
The Burning by M. R. Hall

The Burning is the sixth book in this outstanding and intelligent series which stars a coroner with a conscience, a fallible but deeply committed West Country woman whose innate humanity makes her doggedly determined to always seek out the truth, whatever the cost.

Cooper’s eclectic mix of cases probe the darker, and sometimes corrupt, side of English life whilst delivering fascinating, page-turning mysteries.

But perhaps the greatest mystery is why ex-criminal barrister Hall’s clever, compelling stories have not yet been snapped up for prime time television with their dramatic backdrop, top class characterisation and tantalising plotlines.

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It’s a freezing cold December day and Severn Vale District Coroner Jenny Cooper is mulling over her complicated personal life – her ex-RAF pilot boyfriend Michael is struggling to cope with combat stress and her student son Ross is giving her the cold shoulder.

It seems like her ‘cruel destiny’ is to be surrounded by men who can’t cope with their feelings so it is with some relief that she is called out on a new case in the village of Blackstone Ley.

It is the scene of a dreadful tragedy; a house has burned to the ground with three members of a family inside. It appears that Ed Morgan has started the blaze and then shot himself and his teenage two stepdaughters.

The police want to close the investigation as they feel certain that the fire was started by Morgan in a fit of jealous rage over his partner Kelly Hart. But the couple’s three-year-old son is still missing and Morgan had left a message for Kelly, telling her that she would never find him.

As Jenny prepares the inquest, she finds herself troubled by the official version of events. What could have provoked Morgan’s murderous rampage and were other village residents involved?

There is also the possibility that Morgan could have been connected to the mysterious abduction of a neighbour’s four-year-old daughter ten years ago. Jenny soon becomes entangled in another perplexing inquiry but can she unearth Blackstone Ley’s secrets before it’s too late?

The Burning is M.R. Hall’s most triumphant project yet… an addictive whodunit brimming with fast-paced action and his now trademark impeccable research and ingenious plotting.

As the principal characters – not least Jenny’s irrepressible Coroner’s Officer Alison – develop with each book, the series is now in full, glorious flight.

And it’s never too late to hitch a ride…

(Mantle, hardback, £16.99)