Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner is a marvellous, beautifully written novel that while it sits under the crime genre, is so much more than that.

When Cambridge University post-graduate student, Edith Hind – a privileged young lady whose parents not only have royal connections but friends in high political places –  goes missing, DS Manon Bradshaw, a self-described misanthrope is put on the case. A shade this side of 40, Manon seems to be the only one not too perturbed by the high-profile nature of the case – not even when every possible suspect has a water-tight alibi – Manon has more things than death and kidnapping on her mind. Yet, there is blood at the scene of Edith’s disappearance, suspicious circumstances and behaviours leading up to the event but, there’s no ransom note or any other clue as to where in the hell Edith is.

With the media breathing down their throats, time ticking and budget limitations, never mind stressed parents on their backs, the police are hard-pressed to know what to do. Every angle appears to lead to a dead-end or uncovers an element that bears no relevance to Edith’s disappearance.

In the meantime, Manon does her job and gets on with her rather miserable life. Stuck in the predictable rut of internet dating, she uses sex as a panacea for loneliness and just exacerbates her condition. With good friends and a reliable partner, however, it’s not all bad, especially not when a young street kid comes into her life.

However, there is the over-arching case and associated pressures of solving Edith’s disappearance and when more death follows, Manon begins to understand that they’ve all been looking in the wrong places and at the wrong people.

Superbly written with shifting points of view, allowing you to access other characters in the story in ways that are unusual to this genre, this story is an absolute cracker of a read. Insightful, deep characters with moving and logical interactions all set to a wonderful pace, this is a story you can get your teeth into. You see the crime from multiple perspectives, get to know all the police involved in the action and the people who are affected by what has occurred. You care deeply what happens and no more so than to Manon.

Filled with surprises and ah ha moments, more because of the rich street-philosophy and observations about people and life than anything, this was a joy to read. I didn’t want it to end. Cannot recommend highly enough for lovers of crime but also literary, well-written books with great plots and characters. Cannot wait to fall into another Susie Steiner.

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The Black House by Peter May

11713120The Black House, the first book in the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May is simply sensational. Set on one of the northernmost islands in the Outer Hebrides, it tells the tale of Fin McLeod, a Lewis native who has been living in Edinburgh for the past 18 years. A Detective Inspector, Fin is sent to Lewis to investigate the murder of a man who, it turns out, went to school with Fin and was generally regarded as no-good thug. While Fin’s knowledge of Gaelic was considered when sending him north, it doesn’t endear him to the man in charge of the case nor to some of those he once called friends. 18 years is a long time between drinks and Fin left Lewis the way he has returned, with secrets in his heart and ghosts to lay to rest. But when one of the ghosts returns to haunt and harass him, Fin finds it not just those keeping his secret he has to protect, he has to watch his own back as well.

Beautifully told and masterfully plotted, this is poetic and character-driven writing at its best. May places you right there in wind-swept, ruggedly beautiful Lewis, amidst the machair and under the grey skies pierced by sunlight. Segueing between first and third person, past and present, Fin’s personal story from child to adult and that of the current investigation begin to intersect and become clear, all of which builds to an utterly breath-taking and simply stunning climax.

I put this one down so reluctantly and quickly picked up the next book in the series. I am so happy I discovered May because he has so many books to his name, and now I have a new author in whose work I can lose myself.

A sublime read.

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The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift

30832002The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift is one of two books (the other is The Gilded Lily, but read this one first) that basically deal with a similar set of characters during the same period in British history, 1660 and the Restoration. Instead of being set in London or focussing on the royal family, aristocrats, and their various scandals (as so many wonderful novels set in this period are wont to do), this novel tells the story of Alice Ibbetson, a talented painter and the grieving wife of Thomas Ibbetson. Mourning the death of her younger sister a year earlier, Alice is finding it difficult to embrace life and even tolerate the demands of her rather dullard husband. Finding solace in her painting, she has become obsessed with not simply flowers, but capturing the beauty of various plants for posterity. When a neighbour, the rather strange but also fascinating Quaker, Richard Wheeler, shows Alice the location of a rare and very beautiful orchid called The Lady’s Slipper, which also happened to be her sister’s favourite flower, Alice knows she can’t merely paint it, but must preserve it for the future.

When the flower disappears and a pair of lady’s slippers go missing as well and then a local healer, Margaret Poulter is found murdered, suspicion is rife and there are those with their own motives keen to lay blame for both the flower’s disappearance and the death at Alice’s door. When Alice’s maid, the selfish and rather lazy, Ella, who’s been having an affair with Thomas, presents evidence linking Alice to the crimes, not even the truth and justice of Quakers can save her.

Using the beauty of nature as a theme to explore the ugliness of which human nature is capable, the title is a clever nod to two very different variations of “lady’s slippers” both of which set off a chian of catastrophic events. As the plot twists and turns and characters are tested and mostly found wanting, this book explores loyalty, faith, greed and loss as well as what lengths people will go to protect their power – even before each other.

Dark at times, what I particularly liked about it is that no character is clearly “evil” or “good”. It’s a strength of Swift’s writing that all the characters, even the heroine, Alice, are not above questionable behaviour that has the reader recoiling at times, even if we understand their motives.

Swift also recreates the period beautifully – from clothes, to social ranks, food, faith and politics.

A terrific read for lovers of historical fiction and a fine book.

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