Susie Steiner: ‘The series is feminist in its depiction of emotional turbulence’

homecoming book

homecoming book - Credit: Archant

West Hampstead author Susie Steiner tells Ellie O’Donnell about the second instalment of her detective series Persons Unknown.

Readers last met cold case queen DS Manon Bradshaw in Susie Steiner’s top ten bestseller Missing, Presumed.

The quirky, incurably curious Cambridgeshire detective returns for a second case in Persons Unknown with an investigation very close to home when the body of a banker found stabbed in a park turns out to be her nephew’s father.

If the previous novel found Manon approaching 40 with a loudly ticking biological clock and a string of disastrous dates, and a dead PHD graduate on her hands, the second sees her an adoptive mother of a 12-year-old, five months pregnant, and struggling to stay objective as her own family becomes sucked into the investigation.

Steiner, whose first novel Homecoming was a more literary affair based around a turbulent year in the life of a struggling Yorkshire hill farm says she was attracted to writing crime thrillers because: “I think it can create the most enjoyable reading experience – a page turner with a literary sensibility. When I get hold of a book which has this combination, for example with Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, I can’t devour it quickly enough. Crime thrillers have that wonderful mix of grip and immersion.”

Steiner began her writing career in journalism, first on local newspapers and later the Evening Standard, Telegraph and as commissioning editor for The Guardian for eleven years.

She says her journalist skills have influenced her writing processes: “News occupies my mind,” she says. “The research skills I gained from my journalist career are most certainly carried over to my novel writing. I have developed good police contacts since writing crime, and they are essential to my work.”

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Discussing her recurring female lead DS Bradshaw, Steiner says Manon is a flawed protagonist “but not in the usual lonely-detective way”.

“She is the opposite of a loner as she forms strong attachments. However, she is prickly and intolerant and her emotional life is forever up and down, to say the least! I think this is what has made readers take to her so readily. She isn’t on an even keel and she doesn’t pretend to be”.

Steiner describes both her female lead and the novel as feminist: “Not just because Manon is a senior police officer who is very good at her job”.

“The series is feminist in its depiction of emotional turbulence: Manon’s inner life is fluctuating and she struggles with many aspects of life. I try to depict this as a normal part of living – a part of being a person who isn’t cut off – rather than something female or hysterical. I think a heightened emotional life can be portrayed as ‘female’ in a derogatory sense, but with Manon I hope it is shown as vital.”

Living in West Hampstead with her husband and two children, Steiner suffers with Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye condition that causes progressive loss of sight.

While she has “yet to include disability explicitly in any novel” she adds: “Nevertheless, I am disabled and it does affect my outlook. I do not feel invulnerable. I know that my future will be contingent on help from others. I can manage writing quite well at the moment, because font sizes can be made bigger, but I know I don’t have unlimited time.”

Fans of DS Bradshaw will be delighted that a third novel is already in development.

“I am at an exciting point, I’ve formulated a plot and it’s all starting to come alive. Of course, the finished book will fail to live up to the ideal at conception, but I’m enjoying inhabiting the character’s world again. It usually takes me a year to produce a first draft, then I spend a second year revising, taking the work apart and putting it back together again. It’s lovely work!”

Persons Unknown is published by Penguin Random House £12.99.