"Missing, Presumed" Susie Steiner
I had resisted this book for a long time despite the frenzy of praise all over social media and now I am kicking myself for not having read it sooner!
It wasn't the crime thriller, "Gone Girl" esq book I had "presumed" it to be from the front cover. This novel actually transcends genres - it's hard to explain quite where it fits in - there is a missing person, there is a criminal investigation, there is plenty of police procedural sections and the main character is a detective. There are twists, shocks, suspense and gripping revelations but, despite being quite compulsive, it's not a page turner- there is more to be savoured here. This is as much a character study of Manon, the protagonist, as a police procedural book and the writing has a more literary feel. Characters such as Miriam, the missing girl's mother, reflect a more intellectual voice than perhaps usually drawn upon in a crime thriller. Steiner has been compared to Kate Atkinson and I think this is a really fair comment. It was a real pleasure to have my expectations usurped and to discover a novelist from which I hope we will see much more in the future!
So what is it about?
At thirty-nine, Manon Bradshaw is a devoted and respected member of the Cambridgeshire police force, and though she loves her job, what she longs for is a personal life. Single and distant from her family, she wants a husband and children of her own. One night, after yet another disastrous Internet date, she turns on her police radio to help herself fall asleep—and receives an alert that sends her to a puzzling crime scene.
Edith Hind—a beautiful graduate student at Cambridge University and daughter of the surgeon to the Royal Family—has been reported missing for nearly twenty-four hours. Her home offers few clues: a smattering of blood in the kitchen, her keys and phone left behind, the front door ajar but showing no signs of forced entry. Manon instantly knows this case will be big—and that every second is crucial to finding Edith alive.
The opening is quite intriguing, albeit a little confusing as it doesn't start in the usual manner of detective fiction. Steiner begins her story with Manon's hopeless evening internet dating and it's a bit like a rather dark version of "Bridget Jones" as Manon wryly despairs of the night and her ineptitude to meet anyone half decent. Later she comforts herself with "the low murmurings about road traffic accidents or drunken altercations outside Level 2 Nightclub, all of which she can ignore because they are far too lowly for the Major Incident Team." Unusual and interesting behaviour! The final sentence of the chapter claims that it is the "sound of vigilance...rapid response to hurt and misdeed....human kindness in action..." that helps her to sleep. It's a cliffhanger but not a cliffhanger! I was hooked!
I really quickly engaged with Manon. She is sharp, witty, sarcastic and her text messages with Bryony made me smile. Her observations and conversations (including the profanities!) with Bryony and Harriet (her boss) bring an unexpected humour to the novel; it felt strange to be laughing and snorting while reading a book about a missing person! But it works. It really works. I particularly enjoyed the description of herself she imagines to post on the internet dating website:
"Misanthrope, staring down the barrel of childlessness. Yawning ability to find fault. Can give off WoD (Whiff of Desperation). Educated: to an intimidating degree. Can be needy. Often found Googling "having a baby at 40."
Edith Hind, a 24 year old Cambridge student and daughter of the doctor to the Royal Family, has gone missing. Her boyfriend arrives home one evening to find the door open, signs of a struggle, and no Edith. The family are immediately placed under scrutiny but as the detectives surmise; "'.....So he was at the theatre with the Home Secretary. All that means is his alibi probably stacks up.' 'Ye think?' says Harriet..." I liked the sense of panic and pressure immediately felt by the team as they realise exactly what sort of people they are now dealing with and how the press and public might now respond to their investigation. It felt very real - and to be honest, quite refreshing. As was Manon's subsequent text to Bryony: "'Go away please, am in the middle of Very Important Investigation.' 'All right, Mrs Big Tits. Laters. PS it's always the uncle. Or the stepfather. Or the boyfriend. Or possibly a complete stranger.'"
But don't be fooled by these entertaining exchanges. This is a very serious book too. There is plenty of depth, emotion and highly developed characters. Manon is also a complicated character; trying to come to terms with her age, loneliness and disappearing hopes of motherhood. Although the story almost breaks away from the central action to focus on Manon's entanglement with Alan and their brief but intense relationship, she is also highly dedicated to solving the mystery surrounding Edith and clearly intelligent and passionate -not just about justice, but about saving people.
Although the following quote is actually from Miriam, Edith's mother, it does illustrate Steiner's command of language and her ability to effectively describe the pressure of time that the detectives are up against.
"And she is aware of the passage of time- forty eight hours now by police reckoning - is like a growing tumour for a missing person, as if time itself drains the life from their bodies."
I liked Steiner's writing style a lot. She is able to capture moments, people and situations with quite unassuming descriptions that actually reflect her gift for insight and highly perceptive observations. For example, following a television appearance about Edith's disappearance she writes:
"(the host's) voice is laden with condolence, while along the bottom of the screen, Miriam notices, the next item is on flattering trousers, followed by a discussion on toddlers who bite. Something about the lighting on the show makes its world seem thin and breakable."
I also liked Manon's shrewd reflection that "people can seem normal and yet grief swirls about like an unseen tide working against the currents of life...the bereaved should wear signs, she thinks, saying: Grief in Progress - for at least a couple of years."
The latter half of the book is really engaging as we return to the police investigation and events begin to move towards the climatic denouement. The emotional tension is quite raw and the characters become very three dimensional. It was a surprising, complex and very clever journey of suspense, tension and grief.
The best thing about the book was that all the characters are very relatable, authentic and convincing. The dialogue and relationships between them all is engaging, believable and the links between the characters are really well developed. I really hope there is more to see of Manon in the future as I feel she has an awful lot more to bring to the world and I for one would love to meet her again.
Oh, and I also learnt a new word- "rapaciously". Fabulous word!!
My thanks to NetGalley of the ARC of this book in return for a fair review.
For more recommendations and reviews you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)