Persons Unknown

Susie Steiner’s fine 2016 novel Missing, Presumed introduced us to Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw and left us hoping for more. Even more of the same would have been welcome. But Steiner is too agile a writer to settle for repetition. In Persons Unknown, her second installment, she changes location and mood, opening with an apparent surrender. “Cold cases is where she’s ended up,” Steiner writes of Manon, “spending quite a few of her days following her Sat Nav inexpertly around the Fens — Turn around where possible — to interview people who couldn’t remember much about last week, never mind a decade ago.” Then coming home to “her nineties house, squat in its tray of mown turf . . . Her key in the plastic door with its fake leaded lights.” Few writers in any genre can equal Steiner when it comes to such details, and from the outset she immerses us not only in her characters’ lives but also in an England stratified by race and class. There’s the sleek London banker, for example, who “has left the Latvian sprat factory of his ancestors way behind” and the homeless winos on park benches “slumped, talking shite, seeping piss, and watching ladies in hijabs on the outdoor gym equipment.”

Manon has retreated from that London to suburban Cambridgeshire to raise her adopted son, Fly, and to await the birth of her first child. Five months pregnant by an anonymous donor (“For £850 she secured the sperm of a Dane, a nationality that seemed to carry a neutral air”), she lives with her sister, Ellie, and Ellie’s toddler, Solomon, to whom Fly is devoted. “Telling herself this is fine. This is what’s called Having It All . . . home by five, pick up some washing powder.” In the old days, a detective’s weakness was the bottle and the blonde. Now it can be pizza and babies. There is even something of Bridget Jones in Manon when she contemplates her expanding body or wheedles, “Ooh, who is it?” to a colleague rushing to a crime scene.

But she is also mean. Mean and effective: “Manon knows she can make people tense — that it is her specialist skill. She contains ruthlessness.” Particularly when a murder victim turns out to be intimately linked to her family and the evidence implicates twelve-year old Fly. “Tall black youth with his hood up?” Manon frets even before danger looms. “He might as well wear a sign saying ‘Arrest me now.’ ” But could Fly be guilty? Does loving someone mean that you can trust him? At every turn in Persons Unknown, the frailty of human connection — within families or murder units, out on the street or inside an affair — is delicately exposed. Yet never at the expense of Steiner’s lean yet textured plot.

On a December afternoon, in a prosperous neighborhood, a man staggers and falls, stabbed in the heart. Relegated to cold cases, Manon can only watch as her colleagues and friends, Harriet Harper and Davy Walker, begin to investigate the murder of a banker whose corrupt world, it turns out, oddly intersects with Manon’s own. All of this happens swiftly. The novel’s opening chapters are models of elegant compression, and Steiner’s use of alternating points of view — now Manon’s, now Davy’s — adds further tension to a drama that interlocks neatly but never mechanically. Early revelations seem inevitable rather than imposed; a passerby who cradled the body, for example, has something to hide. Manon’s sister, too, has a grimy secret. Then a voice breaks in: “I came out like anyone would — to see what all the tooting and commotion was about,” a woman tells her dictaphone machine, “a body on the ground, thrown there by a car, I shouldn’t wonder, but she was coming round . . . And people were beginning to shuffle away with their disappointment at her being alive.” Bernadette, known as Birdie, owner of the Payless Food & Wine store on seedy Kilburn High Street, might have stepped out of an Alan Bennett play. “In his heyday, my goodness!” she recalls of her hero Tony Blair. “All those years the Labour Party suffered with the bad comb-overs, the stumbling on the beach, and then Tony came along, our shiny straight-talking savior.” And now Birdie (“It’s not at all like me to help somebody”) is sheltering Angel, the injured pedestrian — whose name is not Angel and who is running from something.

Steiner expertly unspools these threads and then smoothly braids them together, using each twist — and there are just enough — to advance and deepen her plot. With similar economy, she alternates narratives (a skill that has prompted comparisons with Kate Atkinson), conjuring up mundane lives shot through with bleak humor. Manon visiting a hospital, for example, “passes the dressing-gowned smokers in wheelchairs and the slipper-shufflers trailing their catheters,” while a few miles away DS Davy Walker contemplates the “heavy lid of porridge-colored cloud” that passes for a winter sky. By the end of the story, her family has been tried intensely by fate, but its final scene finds Manon in nearly blissful retreat, newborn at her breast, new man by her side, but still, unmistakably, herself. “I’ll probably fuck it up, she thinks, as she sits up and rubs the baby’s back.”

 

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