Susie Steiner’s third Manon Bradshaw mystery is set in an England bloated by bigotry, pettiness, and violence against migrant workers. It’s a Brexit-world we’re in. Her protagonist? DI Manon Bradshaw of the Cambridgeshire police, more irreverently acerbic than ever. In book #1, Missing Presumed, Manon was a copper with a deep belief in her ability to solve a crime and bring justice to whom it’s due; in book #2, Persons Unknown, Manon is pregnant, sidelined, and drawn into a case because it involves family; in book #3, copper Manon is back, not by will, want, or ambition; she’s assigned to the possible murder of an illegal Lithuanian migrant worker (conditions akin to slavery, really, as Manon notes). That sense of completion, if not vindication, or justice, is nebulous at best and, by the end, we leave a Manon disheartened with policing. At the same time, of Steiner’s three Manon mysteries, Remain Silent is the funniest, tipping to black comedy, thanks to Manon’s dark humour, which I LOVED.
The blurb will supply some plottish detail for us:
Newly married and navigating life with a toddler as well as her adopted adolescent son, Manon Bradshaw is happy to be working part-time in the cold cases department of the Cambridgeshire police force, a job which allows her to “potter in, coffee in hand and log on for a spot of internet shopping–precisely what she had in mind when she thought of work-life balance.” But beneath the surface Manon is struggling with the day-to-day realities of what she assumed would be domestic bliss: fights about whose turn it is to clean the kitchen, the bewildering fatigue of having a young child in her forties, and the fact that she is going to couple’s counseling alone because her husband feels it would just be her complaining. But when Manon is on a walk with her two-year-old son in a peaceful suburban neighborhood and discovers the body of a Lithuanian immigrant hanging from a tree with a mysterious note attached, she knows her life is about to change. Suddenly, she is back on the job, full-force, trying to solve the suicide–or is it a murder–in what may be the most dangerous and demanding case of her life.
If Missing, Presumed was Manon the professional and England clinging to a class society, then Persons Unknown saw Manon as emotional mess and seedy-Coronation-Street England revealed, seams bursting with the nasty inside. Remain Silent is Manon’s Swiftian anger at an England where migrant boatloads may not beset its shores, but trucks enter from the Continent to fill its unwanted jobs. It’s ugly and battered. In Manon’s investigation, great to see her teamed up with Davy again, we glimpse the indentured conditions of Eastern European migrant workers, at home through a series of flashbacks and as lives disintegrate in slave conditions in a land that resents even while it exploits them. If not for Manon’s scathingly satirical social commentary, I don’t know if I could have borne reading about their lives. But Manon’s voice, even more than the first two books, carries this along with black humour and the underlying decency of a curmudgeon who still wants to indict cruelty and exploitation.
In UKIP-and-Brexit-bred England , secondary characters are rendered with Boschian strokes. A case in point? Davy’s thoughts when Manon calls him in after discovering the hanged man: “They cannot cut him down until the scene photographer has got everything. And SOCO. They’ve cordoned a wide area — don’t want members of the public rubbernecking the gray face or the snapped neck. And they would. They’d form a crowd, just like they did in medieval times at public executions. The public can’t get enough of death in Davy’s experience.” This sets the novel’s ethos as the narrative moves from Davy’s inherent kindness to Manon’s social anger.
Even children are Boschian entities, here’s Manon helping her friend Harriet organize a birthday party for one of her kids: ” ‘Don’t want a pink one,’ he says. ‘I only want a green one.’ ‘There isn’t a green one,’ Manon says. ‘Only this one.’ ‘I only want a green one,’ he insists, with intense eye contact, and it strikes her that if women could only employ this level of intransigence, their pay negotiations would go much better. She squats down so she’s level with the child. ‘Thing is,’ she says, casting a look around her and seeing Mark eyeing her nervously, ‘this is a Join in the Fun Party. It is not a Gross Sense of Entitlement party.’ She senses Mark lifting her by the elbow, bulging his eyes at her, and saying, ‘Can’t you dial it down a bit?’ ‘What?’ she says. ‘He’s seven,’ Mark says nodding at the child. ‘You’re never too young to learn manners.’ ” I guffawed. I’ve navigated too many privileged princesses and lordly-lords of five, six, seven, or sixteen at the day job not to have muttered the very same. Like most curmudgeons, Manon is a blunt, brilliant truth-teller.
Steiner’s Manon is one of the strongest voices I’ve read in crime fiction, whether she’s ruminating on her middle-aged body, being a parent (a combination of bottomless love and, as Manon puts it, “trudge), inequality, injustice, exploitation, or the more personal losses, disappointment, disillusion. Nevertheless, there is a buoyancy to Manon, a clear-thinking, seeing through to the heart of the matter understanding of the world and people around her that makes her come alive for and stay with the reader. Manon’s voice and her view of a fallen England (not quite “Satanic mills”, but not a “green and pleasant land” either; one where “blood [still] runs down Palace walls” and the “Harlot’s curse” is heard) resonates even when the details of the murder fade from memory.
A word also about Davy and how wonderfully he serves as Manon’s counterpoint. He is a good man, ethical, caring, dedicated. Steiner has shown his growth over the three novels and, in this one, he now serves to shed a light on Manon’s flaws. Manon, overeating, blunt-spoken, harsh Manon, can be self-absorbed, is so enamoured of her own “f— it” inner world she can fail to notice the people and circumstances ’round her. She’s appetitive: hankering after food, drink, and men (there’s a hilarious moment involving a youthful Martin Shaw lookalike). I LOVE her because she’s smart, funny, sharp, an incisive no-BS social critic, but it’s Davy who provides the counterpoint and serves to distance us from falling too much in love with Manon. Manon remains a hoot, though, and, as a result, Steiner produces one of the funniest, strangest, most absurd dénouement lines I’ve read in a murder mystery: ” ‘I was one cheese topping away from death,’ Manon tells Davy, as if this is the primary takeaway from the whole sorry saga.” Davy sees into the tragedy of the events they investigate; Manon’s grown a thick skin if only to protect the soft heart we know beats beneath the jadedness.
Steiner has written three remarkable novels with her Manon. I was sad reading the author’s acknowledgments telling us of a terrible illness. I don’t know if we’ll see where Manon et. al. go next, but whether we have another Manon or not isn’t an iota as important as Steiner’s recovery. I wish her well and urge you, dear readers, to treat yourself to three of the best murder mysteries I’ve read in years. With Miss Austen’s nodding agreement, we say Remain Silent is evidence “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent is published by Random House. It was released in June 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-arc, from Random House, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.