Seeking Comfort in Crime Fiction (1): Susie Steiner

In times of unrest, I always find comfort in a few well-chosen and lovingly recommended books. I turn to favourite authors and locations like the Quebec of Louise Penny, or I try out something completely new that I’ve seen other authors enthuse about, like Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series. Of course, poetry is always there to nourish and enlighten me. This is the first of three posts about comfort reading.

Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed

From the blurb: Over the airwaves come reports of a missing woman – door ajar, keys and phone left behind, a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. Manon knows the first 72 hours are critical: you find her, or you look for a body. And as soon as she sees a picture of Edith Hind, a Cambridge post-graduate from a well-connected family, she knows this case will be big.

Is Edith alive or dead? Was her ‘complex love life’ at the heart of her disappearance, as a senior officer tells the increasingly hungry press? And when a body is found, is it the end or only the beginning?

When I first read the blurb of this book, I thought: ‘Not for me. Sounds far too similar to far too many recent releases, nothing special to attract me.’ How wrong I was! Luckily, I got intrigued enough by an exchange of tweets between Sarah Perry, Adele Geras and others to give the author a chance – and I am so glad I did.

It breaks all the rules of crime fiction with which agents and publishers hit us around the head. It does not start with a dead body, in the heart of the action. It has multiple viewpoints, not all of which take the story forward, but merely add nuances to it. It focuses on the characters and the private lives of the investigators more than on the plot. The plot ‘twist’ is not that surprising and the villains are not that hateful. And yet, and yet…

It is great fun to read: clever, humorous, sarcastic at times, sharply observant of human nature with all its foibles. It is Jane Austen writing crime thrillers – and not at all of the cosy sort. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is immediately relatable – not dysfunctional, not a drunk, not heavily traumatised, but just starting to feel the pangs of middle age and the fear of loneliness. Her dating mishaps are both sad but also hilariously cringe-worthy. And the author pokes fun at the pretentiousness of Cambridge students or London professionals with connections.

It’s an unusual police procedural, because it really takes its time to discuss department funding and interactions between team members, rather than rely on clichéed shortcuts. It felt more like the TV series Happy Valley or Scott and Bailey. Having given up on the book Tennison recently (although I loved Prime Suspect), because it had too many irrelevant details, I really connected with this one instead and stayed up all night to finish it. Not because it was full of ‘unguessable’ twists, but because it was so life-like, caring and well-written. I can’t wait to see what happens next with Manon and Fly and, luckily, I won’t have long to wait. The second book in the series Persons Unknown is due out in May 2017.

Home-Grown Crime Fiction

mina

Some quick reads well within my comfort zone this past week.

Denise Mina: Gods and Beasts

In the run-up to Christmas, an elderly man and his grandson are queuing at the post-office in Glasgow, when a gunman bursts in and empties the cash register. The elderly man appears to be helping the gunman and gets shot dead for his pains. But what possible connection can a solid pillar of society have with a criminal and why would he hand his grandson over to a weird-looking stranger in the queue? This is not the only investigation that Alex Morrow has to solve: dodgy politicians and criminal gangs, her own brother with his shady dealings, and corruption within her own department make her wonder if there is any part of Glasgow society that she can trust.

Mina can certainly write: she conveys character with just a few traits of the pen and speech patterns. While this story doesn’t quite reach the emotional depth of the Garnethill or Paddy Meehan trilogies, it’s a great read, with an undercurrent of despair. The corruption of politicians and ongoing criminality of Glasgow are ever-present, but there are some characters that you feel hopeful about, some that you hope will be able to create a new life for themselves.

withouttraceSimon Booker: Without Trace

Booker is a TV scriptwriter, and there is an urgent pace and compulsive storytelling quality to his book which proves that. This is less noir than Mina’s work, more of a ‘read all night’ thriller.

Single mother and journalist Morgan Vine has campaigned for more than four years for the release of her childhood sweetheart Danny Kilcannon from prison. She does not believe he killed his wife and stepdaughter, and when a key witness recants his statement, Danny is freed. But then Morgan’s own teenage daughter goes missing and she no longer knows what to believe.

I couldn’t stop reading this, as I too started to doubt and suspect everybody and everything, just like Morgan. Cleverly constructed and full of suspense, with plenty of dodgy characters and grudges, it is a twisty rollercoaster of a book. My one gripe would be that some of the characters are perhaps a bit sketchy or clichéd and the ending felt a trifle over-elaborate and long.

bloodwilltellJeanne M. Dams: Blood Will Tell

Not strictly speaking ‘home-grown’, since the author is American, as is her amateur investigator Dorothy Martin, but Dorothy is married to a retired British chief constable and they are visiting Cambridge, so it will pass muster for now. Except that it really is the vision of olde worlde England and traditional college life that Americans want to see, as the recent success of Downton Abbey has proved.

What I did like was that Dorothy and her husband are in their 70s, happily retired but still keeping themselves very active mentally, although they do complain about their knees and joints and bruises. There aren’t many books featuring elderly investigators out there, so this one has to be praised for that fact alone. The storyline, however, was too cosy and twee, too slow and ponderous for my taste. A bloodstain on the floor leads to all sort of speculations, most of them wrong – it just didn’t arouse my curiosity enough.