Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw of Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed is 39 years old, single, and doggedly seeking love. The last is not her defining characteristic, but it is her most unfortunate one. (“Two years of Internet dating. It’s fair to say they haven’t flown by.”) When we meet her, she is enduring dinner at a restaurant with a man “whose name might be Brian but equally be Keith.” By any name he is a bore and a prig, his outstanding features being his interest in the details of his own job and his extreme punctiliousness in dividing the bill: He did not, he points out, have any wine.
To those of us who are gobblers of British crime novels, Manon is a familiar type, built along the lines of Ian Rankin‘s Siobhan Clarke and Kate Atkinson‘s Tracy Waterhouse: bad diet, regrettable clothes, stubborn, perceptive, clear-headed, and hardnosed with a well-concealed heart. More particularly, Manon is a member of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, and the case that brings her to our notice, in this the first volume of what is projected to be a series, is that of a missing woman.
Returning one Sunday night to the little worker’s cottage he shares with his girlfriend, Edith Hind, Will Carter finds the door open and the lights on. Edith’s phone, keys, and car are there, and also some spatters of blood – but no Edith. He calls the police, and matters quickly become of the highest priority when it turns out that the missing woman, a graduate student at Cambridge University, is the daughter of Sir Ian Hind and his wife, Miriam.
Sir Ian is a surgeon, among whose patients are members of the royal family. Beyond that, he is great friends with the home secretary and not at all reluctant to throw his weight around. “From now on,” Manon’s superior officer tells her sardonically, “we treat Sir Bufton Tufton downstairs with the utterly slavish deference he so richly deserves.”
As the investigation proceeds, a picture of Edith begins to emerge, and the more we learn about her, the more tiresome she strikes us as being. A harsh critic of the modern world, a would-be savior of the planet, and an advocate of “living truthfully,” she is supported by her parents with a handsome monthly allowance. She refuses to have a bank account, declaring that “someone has to break with the status quo,” and is in favor of banning cars – though she has an electric one herself.
In the course of questioning Edith’s friends and acquaintances, the police learn that she has treated a close friend, Helena, with sarcastic contempt, then initiated a sexual relationship with her, leaving the other woman confused, ashamed, and yearning. Not content with that, she boasted of the affair. Soon enough, the media learn of the matter, reporting it with lurid extravagance. The consequence is disastrous.
Additional strands weave their way in: A notorious sexual predator seems to have had some sort of contact with Edith and, more dramatically, the drowned body of a young man, a petty criminal, is discovered in the nearby River Ouse. Is there a connection? Does the dead man’s younger brother, whom he looked after, hold a clue? And what will become of this child now that his brother is gone?
The story is told from three main points of view, with glimpses from a couple of others. Manon’s dominates, followed by that of Edith’s mother, Miriam, a trained physician who has wound up giving over much of her life to being a wife and a mother to two children. We also see matters as Detective Constable Davy Walker sees them. He is a cheerful, compassionate young man who works with troubled children in his off hours. His girlfriend, Chloe, on the other hand, is a triumph of passive aggression, a killjoy, and a source of exquisitely bleak comedy.
The novel’s plot is serviceable, possessing an appropriate roster of possible culprits and a wide array of laptops, cell phones, and CCTVs through which to rummage. Still, the book’s real strength lies in its characters: their personalities, their emotions, and their little ways.
“Sir Bufton Tufton” is unable to disguise his contempt for ordinary people; Miriam is shown perceptively in both her grief and her ambivalence about her life’s trajectory; Helena’s wretchedness over incidents she herself didn’t understand is palpable, as is her agony over being exposed publicly. Kind, sweet Davy is a joy, and his god-awful girlfriend is a pearl beyond price.
Finally, Manon is a fully developed, which is to say credibly flawed, human being, especially in her unregulated feelings toward intimacy. This is a most promising start to what, I hope, will be a substantial series.