Thriller writer M.R. Hall's Bristol coroner faces a bridge too far
David Clensy talks to the writer behind Judge John Deed and Kavanagh QC about his latest novel – which brings a sinister twist to the work of his fictional Bristol coroner
A MAN leaps to his death from a Bristol motorway bridge, and a report lands on the desk of coroner Jenny Cooper. But at the first glance through what seems to be a clear case of somebody taking his own life, M. R. Hall's fictional Bristol coroner can't imagine what sinister truths lay behind the death.
"It's so difficult to tell you much more without completely giving the plot away," says the thriller writer, nervously, as he chooses his words carefully so as not to betray each twist in the fifth novel in his Jenny Cooper series.
M. R. Hall – Matthew to his friends – has focused all his coroner novels in and around Bristol, and there is a distinctive theme running through them – an interest in the sinister potential of the latest scientific advancements.
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His last novel, The Flight, for example, questioned what might happen if the onboard computers took control of a Bristol-engineered Airbus A380 – the world's largest commercial airliner.
But in his latest book, The Chosen Dead, which comes out on January 31, the 45-year-old has turned his attention to the sinister potential of microbiology.
"I've done a lot of research into the developments taking place in the world of microbiology and genetic manipulation," Matthew says. "I've talked to a lot of academics who are experts in the field, and tried to understand how this sort of cutting edge technology could, in an extreme case, be used with malevolent intent.
"The more I questioned the academics, the more I realised there could be potential for this sort of technology – so baffling to most of us – to be misused in the wrong hands. The more I went down that route, the less keen the scientist became to be identified as part of my research – understandably enough I suppose, they decided they would prefer to retain their anonymity.
"In the book, Jenny Cooper gradually realises there is a sinister connection between the death of the charity worker on a motorway just outside Bristol, with the killing of a young microbiologist in Arizona in 1982 and the murder of a Russian scientist trying to escape from the Soviet Union in 1989."
As with all Matthew's thrillers – there is, of course, far more to the story than meets the eye at first glance.
"I'm very fond of writing about Jenny Cooper," says Matthew."She has great depth as a character, which allows you to write a whole series of books rather than a one-off novel. I'm already working on the sixth book in the series, which will look at the tensions in a small modern rural community – it will be set in a fictional village outside Bristol, in the shadow of the Oldbury Power Station."
The barrister-turned-writer, best known as a screenwriter for shows such as Kavanagh QC, Dalziel and Pascoe and Judge John Deed, also believes there is potential for Jenny Cooper and her life as a Bristol coroner could transfer well to the small screen.
"In fact I'm already in quite advanced talks with a television company about it," he said. "Though as is always the case with television, these things take years to be agreed upon. But I certainly think it could happen one day – I'm hopeful we could see Jenny's experience in and around Bristol on the screen."
But Matthew is conscious of the greatest danger for crime writers – the "Midsomer Murders effect" of warping the proportionality of crimes for a single region.
"I don't want to do a Midsomer Murders, and have a murder in Bristol happening every week, because that's just not realistic," he says. "So I'm tackling that by changing the pace of the writing and the kinds of crimes that appear in each novel – if you're working on a series of novels that will hopefully carry on for a long time, you have to be conscious of ringing the changes, so each story strikes a different note."
The Chosen Dead, by M. R. Hall is published by Mantle, priced £12.99. M.R. Hall will be giving a talk at Blackwell's, 87 Park Street, Bristol on Thursday, February 7, at 6.30pm. To reserve at ticket call 0117 9276602.