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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

Random House, 320 pages, $27

Manon Bradshaw’s personal life is still a mess. There’s the bad, the worse, and the awful. Does it matter that she is a crackerjack police detective? No.

In this second outing for DI Bradshaw, her personal life again intrudes into her professional one. For one thing, Manon is walking like a beached battleship and can’t always get up if she is down. She’s six months pregnant. The how and why of that doesn’t come until way into the book.

It has been over a year since the events in the first book. Manon has returned to her little town of Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, leaving her big city London job behind. That is so she and her sister can create better lives for their children. In Manon’s case, it isn’t just for her unborn child. For those who read the first book, “Missing, Presumed,” it will warm the cockles of your heart to learn that her adopted son is twelve-year-old Fly Dent, the sweet and vulnerable child whose older brother was murdered. Her sister Ellie has a three-year-old, Solomon. They all live together in an unremarkable but large house.

However, all is not well in paradise. Although the move was made to take Fly away from the poverty, drugs, and grinding lifestyle of where he is from, he feels out of place as a black boy in a very white town. Also, he is in trouble at school, often asked to babysit his young cousin, and buries his head in a book at every opportunity. And let’s not get into his monosyllabic responses! Manon finds out that he has skipped school at least once to travel back to his old London neighborhood. Can she win Fly’s heart if their new life is already stacked against them?

Worst of all (actually, worse is yet to come!), she has been sidelined from active duty. When a murder case occupies the squad, she eavesdrops, offers unwanted suggestions, and inserts her nose where it doesn’t belong. Her old colleague and former underling, Davy Walker, is supervising the case, something Manon used to do with Davy’s assistance. Sigh.

A man has been found stabbed to death in a nearby stretch of woods. A woman was walking on the same trail when she saw the man fall. He whispered what sounded like, “Sass,” as he died. The murder weapon cannot be found. It is discovered that the man had just arrived by train, walked the short distance to the woods, and then died.

Susie Steiner’s plotting shows her genius. Why are there holes in the testimony of the woman who found the man? Is she his killer? Then she claims to have seen someone else in the woods. A black man with a hood? A black boy, perhaps? Fly? Is her testimony reliable? I want to be careful and respect Steiner’s meticulous layering of the story, including the revelation of who the dead man is, so this review is rather sparse in details. But Steiner presents a deliciously layered crime-cake.

Manon is hard to like as a character; she’s too needy and self-involved. She spent the first book whinging, crying, and being a mess. She does less of that in “Persons Unknown,” trying desperately to pull herself up to face her new responsibilities, but she still has to be rescued by her incredibly tolerant friends. Her saving grace is she is a tenacious and intelligent snooper. Despite not being on the official team investigating the murder, she has an advantage. Besides the above-mentioned qualities, she is not hampered by certain assumptions the team is making.

My favorite new character is Birdie Fielding, who headlines one of the many sections of “Persons Unknown.” She is an overweight convenience store owner in London. She accidentally becomes involved in the case. She loves Tony Blair, disgraced though he may be. She misses her grandmother. She watches reality shows in her apartment above the store. Then this heretofore lonely, complex, intelligent woman living an ordinary life falls headlong into a dangerous situation. Steiner wins five gold stars for this character and her part in the story.

Finally, finally, Manon moves slowly outside of her own needs. The promise and ending for “Missing, Presumed” is realized in this. 

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