After a run of great books, Matthews’s Gentleman Jim, Griffiths’s Stone Circle, Bliss’s Redemption, I could not settle for less, so I grabbed Susie Steiner’s Persons Unknown from the night-stand. If it could be half as good as Missing, Presumed, I was in for another winner. It was and wasn’t. I still gave up sleep and human companionship to read non-stop, resisting the pull of obligation and meals. I still loved the characters, though Manon grated in this one, but Davy was as lovable as ever. I still loved how Steiner made her “coppers” pursue justice and even occasionally mercy and manage to have messy, at times pathetic, personal lives. (By the end, Davy’s speed-dating!) But the crime and Manon’s place in it were wrenchingly difficult to read about; Manon was difficult to read, weepy, hugely pregnant, cumbersome emotionally and physically.
Now to the blurb-summary to get the procedural details (my reviewer’s Achilles’ heel, I am rubbish at keeping track and am the reader ever-duped by red herrings):
As dusk falls, a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding from a stab wound. He dies where he falls, cradled by a stranger, a woman’s name on his lips in his last seconds of life.
DI Manon Bradshaw can’t help taking an interest — these days, she handles only cold cases, but the man died just yards from the police station where she works.
She’s horrified to discover that both victim and prime suspect are more closely linked to her than she could have imagined. And as the Cambridgeshire police force closes ranks against her, she is forced to contemplate the unthinkable: How well does she know her loved ones, and are they capable of murder?
As it turns out, the “young man” staggering to his death is Manon’s two-year-old nephew’s father, her sister’s, Ellie’s, ex. The accused is Manon’s adopted 12-year-old son, Fly. The wheels within wheels of this case are sordid: involving organized crime, financial corruption, and sexual exploitation. At the heart of it, however, are immoral people and moral people, corrupt and virtuous, heinous and honest, victims and vile perpetrators, the vulnerable and powerful and privileged. The resolution frees the innocent, but it doesn’t punish the guilty. Nothing is neatly resolved, but at least our heroine’s life arrives at a compromised dare-I-say-it HEA.
When the novel opens, Manon’s life has changed completely since we were last with her in Missing, Presumed, which was more of a conventional procedural, not as close to home, not as emotionally messy. Oh, Manon was still a mess in her personal life, but her professionalism and pursuit of truth and justice, spot-on, and most importantly, she’s part of a team, working in tandem or opposition, in agreement or conflict, but still part of a team. In Persons Unknown, that team we met and loved are still at work. But everyone is going in different directions and the investigation takes place disparately.
I like a loner-heroine, a detective, amateur, or otherwise, solving a case. I cut my teeth on Kinsey Millhone and I like my crime fiction heroines feminist and super-human in intelligence and physical adroitness. Manon is neither; in this novel, she has even conceded her career for motherhood: “Manon is in hot pursuit of work-life balance: desk job, regular hours, house full of children.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that;” nor is it valid to criticize Steiner for writing the heroine she wanted to write. What it comes down to is I didn’t enjoy Manon-mother as much as I enjoyed Manon-loner, and not because Manon adopted a 12-year-old boy (I loved that bit in the previous book and it’s still the best part of this one) … because Manon spends most of the novel voluminously pregnant and out of her police position, delegated to a self-imposed desk job. With Fly as the accused, her investigating chops come back into play and that’s when I began to enjoy the narrative. The parturition details I could have done without and there are so so many.
Steiner is such a fine writer that, at times, I had to stop to reread a passage, savor and think about it. Like this one that sums up the nature of police work:
Investigations, Davy realises as he looks at his checklist without knowing quite where to begin, run on the energy of time, run against it sometimes if a living person’s in danger — a kidnap, say, or a kiddie lost. Other time’s it’s justice that runs against the clock. Given time, your perp can get rid of the weapon, wipe down his prints, cook up an alibi or hot-foot it to somewhere sunny. The Costa Brave is bristling with British timeshare criminals. Time blunts all.
A meditation on the investigator’s inability to see but through a glass darkly, is it anything more than equally true of any attempt to reach the heart of the matter? It was passages like these that gave me pause.
Steiner can also be darkly funny. I loved this particular exchange between Manon and sister Ellie, as Ellie regales her with stories from her dead ex, Jon Ross:
‘He told me some insane stories about the City. Champagne, hotels, piles of drugs, piles of girls. He told me about one party they had where they hired a whole floor of a London hotel and it ended up being a sea of naked bodies.’
‘Don’t get much of that in the police,’ says Manon. ‘Not on cold cases, certainly.’
‘No, there’s not much of it in nursing either. I mean there’s bodies, and they’re often naked, but not in a good way.’
‘In general,’ Manon says, ‘if you’re after the orgiastic experience, public sector isn’t really the way to go.’
References of sheer genius: my favourite being Manon contemplating a pass at her son’s defence lawyer: “What would she think of herself, what would the world think, if she were to hurl her haggard self at Mark Talbot, lay her Francis Bacon body at his feet?” As a Bacon fan and someone who’s watched copious documentaries about Bacon’s devolution to debauched rotundity on sticks-legs, I guffawed late into the night, reading way past my bedtime. Later, when Mark and Manon are post-coital: “He is reading Knausgaard, he says. ‘That’s a bad sign,’ she says.” At this moment, Manon, c’est moi.
In the end, while some of the mystery puzzle-pieces found their neat places and our Manon has an HEA, Steiner leaves us with a wickedly subtle but very definite cliff-hanger of “persons unknown” … I’m looking forward to book 3. Steiner’s Persons Unknown is published by Harper Perennial. I suggest you read them both.