I had the pleasure of meeting Susie Steiner at the Bath Literary Festival earlier this year, where she gave a brilliant talk (along with the wonderful Sam Baker) about creating suspense within her novel.
Missing, Presumed is billed as literary crime, and tells the story of missing young activist Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-grad who vanishes one snowy night in mid-December. There’s a spot of blood on the kitchen floor, a wide open door, and her boyfriend Will hasn’t a clue where she might be. Steiner immediately ramps up the tension by giving us an opening set-up full of potential clues; straight away there are infinite possibilities as to what might have happened to Edith – but none of them look good.
At the heart of this novel, though, is Detective Manon Bradshaw, the woman assigned to Edith’s case along with a couple of her colleagues. Bradshaw is a genius creation – she is big-hearted, she’s relatable, she’s flawed, and she’s incredibly vulnerable; despite a high-profile, pressurised detective job she comforts herself at night with the sound of the police radio, because it is “the sound of vigilance, this rapid response to hurt and misdeed. It is human kindness in action, protecting the good against the bad.” Why does Manon need comforting? Well, because she is single. And she is lonely.
Steiner creates hilarious and poignant scenes whereupon Manon suffers through terrible dates: “The last date with a town planner scored 78% compatibility – she’d harboured such hopes, he even liked Thomas Hardy – yet Manon spent the evening flinching each time his spittle landed on her face, which was remarkably often.” She has been internet dating for two years, which have “not flown by,” and the reader can almost smell the desperation coming off her as she endures date after date with no-hopers, downright weirdos and tight-fisted men who split the (tiny) bill: “He shows her the items on the bill which were hers – a carafe of red and a side salad.” Manon is also estranged from her sister, and Steiner creates in her a memorable, lovable character who drives the story forward even as she makes mistakes.
The juxtaposition between Manon’s disappointing personal life and the drama of the missing Edith Hind is brilliantly done. As the hours tick by, hope for Edith lessens; her well-connected parents call in favours from the home secretary to no avail; her boyfriend fails to come up with the answers; the hint of a lesbian affair begins to surface. Steiner creates great amounts of suspense around Edith’s best friend Helena, whilst giving us insights into both the gritty police world and the horror of the baying press who hound all involved for information – with some disastrous consequences.
Just when you think you might have cracked the mystery, Steiner turns everything on its head and I was left guessing throughout – an increasingly rare achievement in a police procedural novel. Steiner’s characters are drawn with such humanity that one cannot fail to cringe for Manon as she drunkenly texts her ex, cheer for her as she unravels threads of the mystery, worry for her as she takes risk after risk in both her personal and her professional life. Her colleague Davy is also larger than life, and the novel turns on these imperfect people – we feel as though we are in the police station with them, munching their way through chocolates while ruling out red herrings in an increasingly high-profile case.
Steiner delves into serious matters, drawing parallels between this fictional case and that of the Soham murders (in terms of press interest and the pitfalls it can bring), and she gives us insights into terrible grief by adding chapters from the point of view of Miriam, Edith’s long-suffering mother. Missing, Presumed is a terrific, thought-provoking read, a fully-fleshed out murder mystery with a cast you’ll fall in love with.
Missing, Presumed is published by HarperCollins and you can buy it here.