'Missing, Presumed' Chronicles Ups And Downs Of Dating ... And Detective Work

Jul 16, 2016

Here's a different kind of thriller, of the sort often called "literary": Susie Steiner's Missing, Presumed follows British detective inspector Manon Bradshaw as she investigates the disappearance of Edith Hind, a university student from a well-off family.

But the book is much more than a detective thriller — it also takes a close look at its characters' personal lives. Steiner tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer, "What I very much wanted to do was to emulate what Kate Atkinson did in the Jackson Brodie mysteries, where there is all the propulsion of mystery — so there's that page-turning grit making you want to go back to it — but along with that is all the riffing and meandering and depth and relationship of a literary novel."


Interview Highlights

On detective inspector Manon Bradshaw

I see her as normal, and by that I mean miserable. She is 39. She's very good at her job, she's bright and she's very interested in her job — but she's very, very lonely. She's single and she longs to meet somebody and to have a family. And what runs alongside the mystery in Missing, Presumed is also the ups and downs of her personal life, and in particular the tribulations of Internet dating, which she finds particularly miserable, as a lot of people do, I think.

On the novel's victim, Edith Hind

In some ways, Edith is the polar opposite of Manon. She's all glossy surface and she's rather perfect. She's studying at Cambridge, which has this rarified atmosphere, and she comes from a very well-connected family — her father is surgeon to the royal family — and they're very rich and seemingly successful. But underneath that are other undercurrents. And in a sense, Manon — who's a bit of a mess and who is crying a lot in the second floor toilets — appears to be diametrically opposed to Edith. But I think other things are revealed in the course of the novel about surfaces and about appearance.

On the challenge of ending a thriller and deciding how many clues to give your readers

Endings are enormously difficult. You've thrown all this stuff into the air and you're trying to bring it all in to land in a way that is satisfying but is not so fictional that it appears too tidy or too unrealistic. And that's a very difficult thing to do. I'm a huge rewriter, so I do draft upon draft upon draft, and that provides an opportunity to backlay clues. So there was an awful lot of putting clues in, taking them out again, putting them back in, worrying it was then obvious. It's a difficult thing not to let people know on page 10 who did it, you know. And that's a delicate balance because the reader wants to be co-sleuth — that's part of the joy — but also not to work it out too early.

On whether this book is the beginning of a series

There's certainly another one which is in its final stages. I can't really say more than that because it could all change. But Manon doesn't change. Manon is there.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Here's a different kind of thriller, of the sort often called literary, which mostly means it's well-written and, in this case, cleverly conceived. It's called "Missing, Presumed," leaving off the last word you'd expect would follow - dead. The author, Susie Steiner, is a former journalist who lives in London. She joins us from our studios there. Welcome to the program.

SUSIE STEINER: Thank you so much.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in these confusing times, those of us who love to read thrillers always like the fact that they have plots that progress and resolve and characters that we're interested to meet. Let's start with your heroine, whose name is - how do you pronounce it?

STEINER: Manon Bradshaw.

WERTHEIMER: Manon Bradshaw is a detective inspector in the British police. She's not hardboiled. She's not a psycho. How did you see her?

STEINER: I see her as normal, and by that, I mean miserable. She is 39. She's very good at her job. She's bright, and she's very interested in her job, but she's very, very lonely. She's single, and she longs to meet somebody and to have a family. And what runs alongside the mystery in "Missing, Presumed" is also the ups and downs of her personal life and, in particular, the tribulations of internet dating, which is - she finds particularly miserable, as a lot of people do, I think.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you introduce us to that in the first few pages. She's out on an internet date, and at the end of it, she and her date, whose name she can't quite remember, split the bill. But then the guy gives himself a deduction because she had wine, and he didn't. And so it goes for this woman.

STEINER: Yes. I think most people who've experienced internet dating have had mixed experiences. And I thought it was a good way to convey the difficulty of finding a person to be with, which is one of the essential difficulties of life, isn't it?

WERTHEIMER: Your book works its way through the cast of characters. As you said, it's sort of - their little stories sort of go along beside the main plot. There's a failed love affair with a strange person. Another character has a broken engagement with a nasty young woman.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: It's all woven into the thriller, like - it's like a - kind of like a novel of manners combined with a thriller.

STEINER: Yes. That's - what I was - very much wanted to do was to emulate what Kate Atkinson did in the Jackson Brodie mysteries, where there is all the propulsion of mystery. So there's that page-turning grip making you want to go back to it. But along with that is all the riffing and meandering and depth and relationship of a literary novel. So that was, in a way, my attempt to create the most delicious novel I could - the novel that I would most enjoy - was gluing those two things together.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you bring in an unusual character - that is to say - the victim. She's a missing university student. She's disappeared without a trace. Well, actually, I guess there are a couple of little traces. But it's unusual to get to know the victim in the way that we do in your book.

STEINER: Yes. And in some ways, Edith is the polar opposite of Manon. She's all glossy surface, and she's rather perfect. She's studying at Cambridge, which has this rarefied atmosphere, and she comes from a very well-connected family. Her father is surgeon to the royal family, and they're very rich and seemingly successful. But underneath that is, rather, undercurrents. And in a sense, Manon, who's a bit of a mess and who is crying a lot in the second floor toilets...

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

STEINER: ...Appears to be diametrically opposed to Edith. But I think other things are revealed in the course of the novel about surfaces and about appearance.

WERTHEIMER: I also like the trail of breadcrumbs that you leave. When I got to the ending, which was an unusual ending, I realized that there'd been several biggish hints along the way. Now, obviously, we don't want to give anything away, since this is, after all, a thriller. But when you were working out the plot, what were you thinking about how a novel of this kind might end?

STEINER: Well, endings are enormously difficult. You've thrown all this stuff into the air, and you're trying to bring it all in to land in a way that is satisfying, but is not so fictional that it appears too tidy or too unrealistic. And that's a very difficult thing to do. I'm a huge re-writer, so I do draft upon draft upon draft, and that provides an opportunity to back lay clues. So there was an awful lot of putting clues in, taking them out again.

(LAUGHTER)

STEINER: Putting them back, worrying it was then obvious. You know, it's a difficult thing not to let people know on page 10 who did it. And that's a delicate balance because the reader wants to be co-sleuth - that's part of the joy - but also not to work it out too early.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you think? She going to be a series - Manon?

STEINER: There's certainly another one, which is in its final stages. I can't really more than that...

(LAUGHTER)

STEINER: ...Because it could all change. But Manon doesn't change. Manon is there, and Davey is there, and Harriet is there.

WERTHEIMER: And you still like them.

STEINER: Oh, I adore them. Yeah. They're fabulous.

WERTHEIMER: Susie Steiner's novel is called "Missing, Presumed." Thank you very much for talking with us.

STEINER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.