If you've binge-watched Happy Valley, The Fall or Prime Suspect, have I got a book for you: Former journalist Susie Steiner's Missing, Presumed offers a close view of diverse British characters coming to terms with both a murder and their own imperfect lives. You might come to Missing, Presumed for the police procedural; you'll stay for the layered, authentic characters that Steiner brings to life.
Steiner's contribution to what might be called "cozy noir" involves a dual lens. One perspective belongs to Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw of the Cambridgeshire Major Incident Team, who is staring middle age in the face without having found a partner, a family, or contentment. The other belongs to Miriam Hind, mother of the title's missing graduate student, Edith. Manon and Miriam, in different social classes, professions and locations, might seem to have little in common, but it's Steiner's reporting experience that pulls their lives together and shows how women lose in a malecentric society.
But, but, Steiner says — men lose, too. More on that in a moment. The author even has her victim Edith Hind writing a dissertation on the fight against patriarchy in Victorian literature. When Edith disappears from her Huntingdon apartment (glass, blood, coat left behind), her father, Sir Ian, physician to royals and windbag to all, makes a good deal of noise, so much that Manon is summoned from hard-won rest to the scene of the crime.
Poor Manon; she cadges a monitor from her department just so its constant noise can lull her to sleep after one of her series of horrible one-night stands. Still, she rouses her team to action, and this is when her colleague Davy comes up against the patriarchy himself: He can't square his good-versus-evil ideals with the reality of an investigation uncovering very messy, dark motivations. There are two possible perpetrators, and neither prospect makes things easy for Davy or Manon. When a second murder occurs, this time of a young black man, matters get even messier.
It's at this point that I grew a little weary of the business-as-usual business, in which the superintendent barks from on high, the desk sergeants inhale fast food, and the "responsible" ones like Manon find their personal lives intruding on their professional responsibilities. All of these are necessary and true elements of a police procedural, and Steiner does a better job than many at incorporating them. Still, I hope that her next Manon Bradshaw book will be more inventive, this one having set the realistic scene.
But back to the mystery at hand. The contrast between single-and-hating-it Manon and married-and-miserable Miriam works, especially as the riddle of Edith's disappearance comes closer to being solved. This is the point at which almost every review of this novel ends, the reviewer saying something like "Steiner brings things to a satisfying conclusion." Understandable — no critic wants to provide spoilers.
However, that means less attention is paid to the endings of mystery novels, and that isn't right. Too many novels of all genres wind up getting a pass on their endings these days, rushed and incomplete and thoughtless endings. While I won't give spoilers, I can't gloss over the thoughtful, well-paced conclusion that Steiner gives to "Missing, Presumed," because it's weirdly audacious. The voices of women take center stage, and all of them achieve some kind of peace. Miriam's conclusions, in particular, might seem surprising — until the reader thinks back and realizes that they are entirely in keeping with her character.
That's what matters to Steiner — character. It's more than enough to make this book matter to readers, even if it occasionally gets bogged down in ticking off boxes like "Tense conversation in police car" and "Use the phrase 'cast-iron alibi.' " Most of the time, the author provides more delicate insights involving Miriam's notes to herself to buy supplies for a country house, or Manon's nervous anxiety when a new date is about to see her ancient Citroën. It's as if she's elbowing readers and saying, "Nudge nudge, wink wink; we all know I have to provide the caffeine-soaked incident room; follow me this way to the good stuff."
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.