Persons Unknown
Susie Steiner
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Buy *Persons Unknown* by Susie Steineronline

Persons Unknown
Susie Steiner
Random House
320 pages
July 2017
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Forty-two and pregnant, DI Manon Bradshaw is under pressure. Sheís just relocated from London to the small town of Huntington and dug herself into the case of investment banker Jon-Oliverís murder. As a result, sheís stepping on the local forceís toes. Helen is also in hot pursuit of a work-life balance, her domestic reality just a step removed from what sheíd hoped for when she left behind the misery of the Metropolitan Police Force. In Huntington, she had hoped for a fresh start for 12-year-old Fly, her adopted son, and also for her sister Ellie and Solly, Ellieís three-year-old boy. Ensconced in their charmless four-bedroom house opposite police HQ in Hinchingbrooke, Manon and Fly are already nostalgic for the hustle and bustle of the big city.

As for Jon-Oliverís stabbing in Hinchingbrooke Park, clues and suspects appear a bit on thin ground. DS Davy Walker and his boss, officious DCI Harriet Harper, are clearly frustrated at the lack of progress in the case. The first to be interviewed is Judith Cole, who cradled the victim while she listened to his last words, but Judith can shed little light on who might have murdered him. Determined to work on the investigation, Manon attempts to sweet-talk her way into Harriet and Davyís good graces. Her agenda is thrown into harsh relief with the revelation that her sister, Ellie, is connected to the case. As the pressure builds, Harriet concludes that Manon must be kept away from all future briefings so that she canít prejudice the proceedings.

Though Steinerís novel is primarily narrated in alternative chapters by both Manon and Davy, I see this as Manonís story. Her role as central character adds to the canon of gutsy and determined but perpetually stressed-out British female detectives who seem so prevalent these days. The crux of Manonís stress is her relationship to Fly. Mannís doubts about being a new mother are reflected in Fly's unhappiness that sheís decided to have a biological child. While Fly resents being uprooted from the City, Manon readily admits that her aching tiredness is a direct result of worry for the boy who seems so much older than his years.

Manon sees Jon-Oliverís murder as an escape from her pregnancy, from Flyís increasing truancy, and from Ellie, who proves to be the master of evasion. Now she has something to truly sink her teeth into. Davy takes the lead, confessing there's much to do: ďso many tiny steps to complete in just this fragment of the case.Ē Everyone close to the victim becomes suspect. Davy is torn between resolving Judith Coleís ďdog connectionĒ and the small matter of why sheís lying. Jon-Oliverís recent past emerges from the shadows and ends up converging with Bernadette, the third voice in Steinerís narrative. The owner of a Payless Food and Wine store in Kilburn, North London, Bernadette is inadvertently swept up in Jon-Oliverís case after she gives shelter to Saskia, who reveals she worked as a high-class prostitute.

Of course, Manon canít stay away--what good detective could? As her covert search continues, she races to vindicate Fly, captured on CCTV running out of Hinchingbrooke Park just moments before Jon-Oliver was stabbed. With Fly charged for a crime he obviously didnít commit, Manon struggles to convince Davy of her sonís innocence. Davy is evidently frustrated at Harriet for her continual denial of authorization for any kind of trace or surveillance. Moving from Huntington back to London, Persons Unknown proves that habit and decency can mix with sorrow, hope, forgiveness and despair. Like a vast and sinister guide to the rich and powerful, Steinerís baroque prose brings to life Londonís private escort clubs where dignitaries, arms dealers, and Saudi oil billionaires compete with the likes of Jon-Oliver and Saskia, just one more woman intent to give pleasure for a price.

Although Steinerís thriller is cleverly crafted, Manonís constant domestic worries sometimes slow down the narrative. Also, the revelation of Jon-Oliverís murderer pretty early on--and the mystery surrounding the death of a teenage call-girl--end up leaching much of the suspense from the story. Still, the novel moves along pretty quickly, racking up the usual attributes of crime fiction: a feisty female detective relocating to a smaller town, a potential wrong prime suspect, and some old-fashioned sleuthing from Manon and Davy, both dependable detectives in an above-average police department. Steiner hits the mark with her bombshell ending, in which Manon discovers that Ellie is to be a key witness with an array of potential motives. Adding to the drama is Manonís prayer that a series of Flyís incriminating texts will crash and burn. Harriet orders Davy not lose sight of the investigation because of any personal loyalty he might have to his old friend and colleague.

Steinerís mystery is less about who killed Jon-Oliver than about the psychological vagaries and personal histories of each detective. Despite the overwhelming guilt over Fly, a culpability that ambushes her at unexpected moments, Manon always stays true to herself. Every chapter brims with the changing perspective of Manon and Davy and their efforts to vindicate Fly, a boy trapped in a life that doesnít seem quite his own.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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