One thing the editor in me loves about mysteries is seeing how successful authors navigate the challenge of writing entertainingly in a style of novel that’s inherently formulaic. For all its boundless appeal, mystery is a genre whose stories can be very similar in plot and structure, usually opening with the discovery of a crime and ending with the perpetrator being brought to justice in some way or another.
Many of my own favorite mysteries are inventive and surprising—some within the boundaries of what’s expected; others by breaking the “rules” in unexpected ways. Susie Steiner does a good deal of both in Missing, Presumed. The result is a rich and highly satisfying novel that won the hearts of critics, readers, and even Oprah’s book club in spite of (or perhaps because of) some bold departures from mystery-writing formula.
Here’s a bit about the story, from the author’s website at www.susiesteiner.co.uk/:
A young woman vanishes. A smear of blood in the kitchen of the house she shares with her boyfriend suggests a struggle…
As soon as Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw sees the photograph of missing Edith Hind—a beautiful Cambridge post-grad from a well-connected family—she knows the case will be big. And she’s right: pressure soon mounts from the media and from on high. Can Manon see clearly enough to solve the mystery of Edith’s disappearance? Can she withstand intimidation from Sir Ian Hind, Edith’s father, who has friends in high places? And when a body is found, will it mean the end or just the beginning?
Good flap copy is often sneakily deceptive, and I think one reason people responded so well to the book is that there’s much more to the plot of Missing, Presumed than we have reason to expect going into the novel. This was a book that I read with great admiration, and Susie was kind enough to field some my questions about her process, starting with whether or not she had even set out to write a mystery or police procedural in the first place.
“I started with the disappearance of Edith Hind, then wondered how to solve it. Initially I wondered about a private detective, but felt this was unrealistic (they don’t really exist in the UK, except in fiction). I didn’t set out to write a police procedural at all, yet the story demanded it. Everything stemmed from how to solve the disappearance (e.g. what are the ingredients of a high risk misper investigation? including whose POVs I would need). I also wanted a female protagonist who felt real, warts and all.”
That female protagonist is none other than DS (Detective Sergeant) Manon Bradshaw, a 39-year-old single police detective whose loneliness and difficulty with maintaining relationships—a condition that affects lots of cops in crime fiction—is rendered in fresh and imaginative ways. Steiner’s deft handling of this completely convincing character starts on the very first page in a scene that represents the first of several artful sidesteps of mystery writing formula.
Most mysteries open with the discovery of a body or a scene that introduces a crime. This tried-and-true convention of mystery writing works well because it ignites the plot motor immediately and gives readers what they want and expect right off the bat: a crime and an investigation.
Missing, Presumed opens with no mention of a crime. Instead of following formula, the author begin the book with a quietly hilarious scene in which in Manon Bradshaw endures the myriad discomforts of another awful date with another bore of a man she met on an another internet dating service. Then—somewhat surprisingly given how awful the evening has been—she goes to bed with him.
This could be a blunder in the hands of a less talented author. Forgoing a crime to put the narrative spotlight on a sleuth’s loneliness and perhaps even desperation is a risky move, especially for the first book in a new series. But it’s so well written and so entertaining that it’s hard to not be captivated by this woman who is smart, funny, and disarmingly blunt about what’s wrong with her life. Readers know Manon is a detective, and if we’ve read the flap copy we know that a beautiful young woman will soon disappear without a trace and an investigation will ensue.
So we’re left with an opening where the author does a terrific job cultivating patience in her readers—and later rewarding it with two plot developments that tie pretty directly to what we learn about Manon’s life and lovelife in the opening chapter.
I asked Susie to tell me a little bit about how this opening came to be and if she was concerned about the effect of making readers wait for the inciting event of her plot.
“It was accidental! And I’ve become much more ‘trained’ in laying out the body on page one, which to some extent is a shame. Missing, Presumed was about character, and that opening date seems to me to present Manon’s character and the predicament she’s in. So not deliberate at all. I was, however, aware that the novel needed to be fast out the traps, so the disappearance needed to come hot on the heels of Manon’s love life disaster. I think if that opening scene had not been a blind date, or about affairs of the heart (i.e., juicy), I would not have done it.”
Talk about a happy accident! I am a voracious reader of mysteries and I love a riveting opening that goes against the grain of formula. It’s a rare thing to find done so well.
The first chapter may have nothing to do with a crime (except her date’s insistence that Manon pay extra toward the check because she had a glass of wine and he didn’t) but it is written from the point of view of the detective, which helps ground the opening in the genre of a mystery.
I fully expected the next chapter to cut right the chase and was first surprised, then delighted, that it didn’t. The second chapter is written from the point of view of a woman (who’s clearly not a cop) named Miriam. She’s a character we know nothing about but who immediately caught my interest in part thanks to her thoughtful contemplation of the slog of marriage and what she might say or not say about this to her daughter, Edith. (Who we know from the flap copy will shortly become the focus of a missing persons investigation.)
This too feels different from what I see in most mysteries. First, because the second chapter takes its time in getting to the first real plot event: a phone call from Edith’s boyfriend telling Miriam and her husband that Edith has disappeared. Second because it’s unusual to see someone we may presume to be secondary to the story getting so much attention so early on, and as a viewpoint character. (A recurring viewpoint character as we’ll soon come to find out.)
But again, Steiner’s artful writing and thoughtful approach to characterization make a slower build to the inciting plot event quite engaging. And we’ll later realize that Miriam is central to the story, though not in a way we’d ever expect (not a perp, not a red herring) and that the author’s decision to use her as viewpoint character makes glorious, perfect sense.
Readers in fact encounter several points of view (POVs) aside from Manon’s in Missing, Presumed, and they all add richness to the story and take it to unexpected places. Here’s what the author had to say about the process of deciding on which characters got the POV spotlight and why she wanted to use multiple viewpoints to tell the story.
“I began with more POVs than made it into the final edit. The POVs allow the story to progress more swiftly than it could if only in Manon’s POV. And it added humanity to the high-risk misper storyline. I was aware that the reader needed to care about the fate of Edith and to be invested in her being found. The family was the way in to this. Also, female POVs are good for me, because I can hook into something emotional fairly quickly.”
So as I believe is—and should be—the case for many writers, it took some experimentation to find the right mix of viewpoint characters. The author’s decision to use Miriam to tell the story helps address a challenge that rears its head in many a mystery: how to make readers care about a character they don’t meet because they have already gone missing (or worse, are dead) when the story begins.
Using one character to help readers come to know another can be a very effective device. And in this case I found that having access to Miriam’s most private thoughts, feelings, and memories about her daughter was meaningful to my growing stake in the book’s outcome.
And it’s not all sweetness and rose-colored memories either. Miriam sees Edith’s flaws very clearly and doesn’t sugarcoat them or idealize her daughter. (Who is an interesting, complex, and sometimes maddening person.) This helps Edith emerge as a complex, flawed, and truly three-dimensional character, even before we set eyes on her.
Miriam’s viewpoint also puts a dramatic spotlight on the heartbreaking experience of having a child go missing. This too helps intensify readers’ stake in Edith’s being found and gives the book some unexpected emotional heft.
Miriam also later becomes the source of yet another surprising departure from formula in which the detective investigating the case is absent from the resolution of that thread of the plot. While Manon’s sleuthing puts her on the right path to discovering what happened to Edith, it’s Miriam who actually finds her in France and without the help of any of the growing number of police working the case. Manon does succeed in solving a murder, but it’s a murder we couldn’t expect that’s related (bad pun) to Edith’s disappearance in a clever and surprising way.
As you may have gathered by now, the crime that actually drives the plot in Missing, Presumed isn’t the one you read about on the flap copy or are led to expect will be the central crime of the story. While the investigation in the early going rightly focuses on Edith’s disappearance as a kidnapping or possibly murder, she was, as it turns out, not the victim of any crime. Readers later learn that it was Edith’s discovery of someone else’s crime that drove her to let the police believe she was kidnapped, let her parents think she’s dead, and set the core plot of the novel in motion.
The result is a complex, braided story in which a seemingly innocent and bereaved bystander to Edith’s disappearance turns out to have committed the murder that drives her into hiding. The effort to learn the truth and bring the killer to justice puts Manon in a position to fill some of the voids in her life and leave the stifling cocoon of loneliness behind. She does this with a lovely act of kindness that’s engaging in its own right and works well thematically, helping Manon atone for what went terribly wrong when she put her own need for companionship before the calling of the job, with sad and fatal consequences.
Steiner also defies other conventions, for instance using first-person and third-person narration in the same story and withholding a key character’s POV—Edith’s—until very late in the book. The author’s decisions with viewpoint may surprise or even puzzle POV-conscious readers in the moment, but by the end of the book they make perfect sense. They feel to me to be carefully and artfully considered, and not without some constructive trial and error along the way.
“There was a cull of POVs. I write them, and then ask ‘does this move the story on’? And if it doesn’t it has to go. You can’t ask your reader to keep track of too many characters, so less is more.”
Edith’s POV certainly adds to the story, and it makes perfect sense to withhold it from readers until close to the end in order to maintain an important thread of surprise. And there’s something natural and fitting about the unexpected switch from third to first person when Edith is discovered and finally becomes a point-of-view character. It’s one of those things that just feels right for reasons we may not be able to put our finger on.
The use of the present tense feels natural as well and seems a fine choice for this story. I’ve talked to a lot of readers who don’t especially like present-tense narration in mysteries and I was surprised to learn that Susie counts herself among them.
“I don’t choose the present tense, it chooses me. In fact, I dislike it (as a reader) and adore third person past tense stories. But when I write, it comes out in present tense, I suppose because I’m experiencing the scene in my imagination as it happens. I spent a lot of time worrying about this, and trying to transpose into the past tense, but this ended up with mangled, terrible sentences. I keep resolving to do a past tense novel but it seems to be beyond me. I’m hoping I’ll get there, because I sympathize with readers who don’t like the present tense.”
I look at this as a writer ignoring her stylistic biases and trusting her creative intuition, which strikes me as a very good thing. The more open and attuned writers are to what works for a particular story and narrative voice, the better a book is likely to come out. And I think Steiner’s openness served this particular novel well in many ways.
Another very surprising thing about Missing, Presumed is its rendering of Manon’s love interest. Some authors steer clear of romantic subplots in mysteries because they can bog down pace and take readers to a very different place than the gritty, mean environs in which many crime novels unfold. When they don’t, the person who gets romantically involved with the protagonist is almost always charming, attractive, sexy, or charismatic.
I suspect I’m not alone in finding Manon’s love interest in Missing, Presumed to possess none of these attributes, instead coming across as something of an awkward, rather dreadful bore. The editor in me usually bristles when one character falls for another character who seems to have nothing going for them. Too often, this compromises credibility, draws a character’s judgement into question, or just looks plain lazy on the part of the author.
But here, I suspected that readers’ perception of systems analyst Alan Prendergast was deliberately and carefully cultivated by the author, perhaps in an effort to show just how lonely Manon has become and the extent to which desperation may have lowered her standards. Or perhaps how loudly her biological clock is ticking.
“Isn’t he AWFUL?” Steiner said in response to my question about this. “Much of Missing, Presumed was me expunging my own dreadful experiences of being single and dating and the terrible specimens I tried to go out with. He is their zenith.”
He is awful, but apparently not bad at all in bed, which makes the whole situation more believable. But what really makes the scenes with Alan (and other men Manon dates) so darkly funny and mercilessly entertaining is the dialogue on these dates and the contrast between these losers she hooks up with and the sharp, funny, troubled but very likable Manon Bradshaw.
And at the end of the day it is really Manon in all her complicated, flawed humanity who makes this book so memorable. Here’s what the author had to say about how Manon came to be.
“My first novel was in the POV of men—taciturn rural men who didn’t express their feelings. This was a slog, so the freedom to be in a female POV was a great release—a joy ride. I knew exactly how Manon would feel, how she would react and where she would go wrong. It was great to be able to express that. I learned, via my first novel, that real characters are not perfect, quite the opposite. That to be real, a character has to be wrong-headed, selfish, impossible etc and that as an author, one shouldn’t be ashamed of this. We are not propagandists for our characters. They have to be free to embarrass us.”
That hits on something I feel is so vital to the art of characterization and creating true engagement between your readers and your characters. This boils down to being honest with yourself and with your readers about who your characters are. The more you resist the impulse to make them perfect, single-minded, uncomplicated, or one-dimensionally heroic the more relatable and real they become.
Nothing is more important to a mystery series than the character of the detective. Agatha Christie was very clever at plotting, of course, but without Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple she almost undoubtedly wouldn’t have been the bestselling novelist in the world, which she was for a time.
Memorable characterization is much easier to achieve if you give some time and attention to compelling character-based subplots. Yes, this may slow down the pace of your main crime story to a degree. But that’s a worthwhile compromise if you succeed in creating deeper engagement between readers and your protagonist, which in turn makes the events of the novel more meaningful.
One thing I love about Missing, Presumed is how well plot and subplot are integrated. Here’s what Susie had to say about inventing her characters and making the book character-driven without sacrificing urgency or pace.
“I’ve tried to do this throughout the series. I’m interested in their personal lives—these are crucial to me. Without them, the story would be dry. In fact, I often begin with their personal crises: what does Davy want? What’s Manon’s problem in this one? But everything needs to support the story, so I try to make developments in personal lives create insight or shifts in their understanding of the case. Not always easy.”
It may not be easy, but she’s done an admirable job. The story does give some careful attention to how lonely Manon is and how desperate she is for companionship, romance, friendship, love, and someone to share her life with. This leads directly to two dramatic plot events, one tragic and one redemptive, both helping make Missing, Presumed unique and satisfying read in a way I’m still savoring weeks after finishing the book.
Steiner may sidestep a lot of formula here, but she has nonetheless written a remarkably assured procedural and does two things I believe mystery writers must do superbly to write a compelling mystery. The first is to imbue their protagonist with keen intelligence, sharp powers of observation, and good insight into human nature. The second is to write captivating dialogue in the interview scenes with suspects and witnesses.
I’m clearly not alone in my appreciation for everything Susie Steiner gets right, and it’s no surprise that this novel has gotten such warm critical reception from The New York Times, the UK’s Sunday Times , and Oprah’s book club among many others. But like most serious writers, Steiner isn’t resting on her laurels and continues to raise the bar on her craft as she moves forward.
“While I’m pleased with it, and think it has brio, I also think it suffers from mushy middle. I worked very hard to correct this in the sequel, Persons Unknown. As an author, you’re always fighting the last war—always correcting the book that came before. So Missing, Presumed was a correction of Homecoming to a large extent (female-driven, plot-driven), and Persons Unknown is a correction of Missing, Presumed (even more plot, pacier in the middle).
“I think I’ve ‘gone native’ with the police procedural, in that I seem to lay out a body on page one because I want the story driving the novel right from the off. But it’s too easy to become formulaic. So the next challenge will be to break out of the form entirely. When I read thrillers, I’m very aware of lapses in pace—become angrily frustrated with them and think ‘get on with it for god’s sake!’. Usually this is because there is insufficient plot, and complexity is needed.”
So there you have what I hope is some good food for thought about how a dynamite mystery that turned a lot of heads came to be. Missing, Presumed is a wonderful novel that’s full of memorable of characters and exhibits many fine brushstrokes of authorial craft. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a good crime story and doubly so to writers who aspire to rich, complex characterizations in plot-driven genre fiction.