And so we bid a fond “bugger off and mind the door doesn’t hit your arse on the way out” to 2016. As fitting a time as any to reflect on my literary highlight of 2016.
Missing, Presumed has received somewhat mixed reviews and I can completely see why. It is billed as a crime novel when, really, it isn’t one. It just so happens that the central character is a police officer, DS Manon Bradshaw, who investigates the disappearance of a Cambridge PhD student. So far, so formulaic.
However, the main focus here isn’t on the solution of the crime. Instead, the focus is on the impact of the crime on police and civilians alike. In this respect, the novel occupies very similar territory to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. Which is A Very Good Thing in my book.
Steiner’s writing is peppered with searingly insightful meditations upon a range of themes including motherhood, grief and loneliness. She uses Edith Hind’s disappearance not just to propel her plot and generate tension, but to reflect on the nature of family. Here, for instance, Edith’s mother Miriam, who is remarkably clear sighted regarding her daughter’s (myriad) faults, measures the impact of her disappearance:
She screws her eyes tight, her head tipped back, and tears squeeze from their corners, because she loves the bones of Edith and is critical only as if she is a part of herself. This separation is like a rending of her flesh.
So often in crime fiction the characters become mere ciphers who function only to move the plot forward. Here, though, they are real people.
This extends to the central character, Manon Bradshaw, who I am hoping goes on to become the star of a very long series indeed. Just like Steiner’s prose, she is intelligent, sharp, witty and wholly three-dimensional. At 39, she is desperate for marriage and children but, as she confesses to her colleague Davy – and as we ourselves witness during several highly relatable but cringe-inducing passages – she often gets things a bit wrong when it comes to relationships:
‘What I mean is, it takes me ages to find someone I think is really great and then, well, sometimes I knock them over with enthusiasm.’ ‘Like a St Bernard.’ ‘Bit like that, yes.’
Not only is Manon an engaging character, she’s an important one. Why? Because she cries in the toilets and manages to be good at her job at the same time, helping to underscore the message that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
Anyway, on the strength of its wonderfully three-dimensional characters, beautiful and insightful writing, and tremendous wit, Missing, Presumed is my book of 2016.