Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner is the second in a crime fiction series featuring Detective Manon Bradshaw. It is set in Cambridgeshire, where Manon who is 42, single and pregnant, lives with her 12-year old adopted son, Fly Dent. They are relatively new to the area and Fly is attending a new school. They moved because Manon was in search of better work life balance. Living with them are Manon’s sister Ellie and Ellie’s son, Solly.

Manon’s role is to investigate cold crimes. It’s not an exciting job but it suits her while she’s pregnant.  However, when a new murder investigation points towards Manon’s family members, she can’t help but get involved.

The story begins when a wealth manager, Jon-Oliver Ross bleeds to death in the arms of a woman who claims not to know him. The woman says she came across Ross by accident while walking her dog in the woods. Trouble is, Ross died from stab wounds, there’s no dog, and it’s not clear what either of them was doing in the woods in the first place.

When the police open an investigation, Manon discovers that Ross is  Solly’s father. Worse still, Fly is a suspect but there’s little Manon can do to help him because she’s not allowed work on the case. So, she calls on a lawyer friend, Mark, and together they set about proving Fly’s innocence. In the process, they find out a lot more about Ross’s connections and lifestyle. Some of this is dangerous and uncomfortably close to home for Manon.

Complicated plot

Susie Steiner delivers a nicely complicated plot in Persons Unknown but there are a lot of characters and it takes a while to get to know them. This is partly because the narration switches between different points of view. I would have liked more back story on Ellie and her relationship with Jon-Oliver and on Manon. That said, if you read Missing, Presumed you might not need it as much. Despite this criticism, the plot is interesting and holds attention well with nice, short chapters that make for a fast and easy read.

The Wall Street Journal included Susie Steiner’s earlier novel Missing, Presumed in their ten best mysteries of the year. Having read Persons Unknown, I will keep an eye out for future titles in this series.

Disclosure: I read an uncorrected proof copy provided by Harper Collins.

Give Me the Child by Mel McGrath

Give Me the Child by Mel McGrath is a cuckoo-in-the-nest psychological thriller. It’s the story of a family pushed into meltdown by the unexpected arrival of an 11-year old love child.

The action takes place in London during the 2011 riots. The central character and narrator is Dr Cat Lupo, an expert in child personality disorders.

Cat is married to Tom and they have a pre-teen daughter, Freya.

The story begins when Ruby Winter, an 11-year old girl turns up on Cat and Tom’s doorstep. Cat is shocked to learn that Ruby is Tom’s love child. She barely has time to process the news before Ruby moves in.

This is because Ruby’s mother, Linda, has just been found dead. Her only other relative is her grandmother and while Cat is keen for the grandmother to become Ruby’s guardian, it seems no one else wants to go along with that idea.

No such thing as evil?

Against her better judgment, Cat allows Ruby to stay. But almost immediately, things happen that make her fear Ruby’s influence on Freya. Although Cat’s professional background tells her there’s no such thing as evil, instinct tells her otherwise.

Soon, with family headed for meltdown, Cat finds herself caught up in a race against time to save Freya.

Initially, I thought that Give me The Child was off to a slightly shaky start — there seemed to be too many characters and not enough information about some of them. But the storyline and main characters are interesting and within a few pages, I was hooked. The more I read, the more I would have liked a bit more backstory about Tom’s relationship with Cat and also his relationship with Ruby and Ruby’s mother, but I guess it’s a sign of believable characters that I found myself wanting to know more. Overall, I enjoyed this novel. If it had a prequel, I’d be inclined to read it!

[Disclosure: The publisher, Harper Collins provided an advance copy for the purpose of this review].

House of Names by Colm Tóibín | The re-telling of a Greek tragedy

House of Names by Colm Tóibín is the retelling of a Greek tragedy so it’s not surprising that vengeance, betrayal and passion are central themes. Arguably the real themes, however, are maternal anger and exile.

The mother in question is Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon. The root of her anger is the murder at Agamemnon’s command of their eldest daughter Iphigenia. This happens when Agamemnon tricks Iphigenia into thinking that she is to marry the warrior Achilles. However, when the wedding party arrives at Agamnenon’s camp, Iphigenia is instead sacrificed to the gods.

Iphigenia’s young brother, Orteses witnesses the killing. But it is  Clytemnestra who sets out for revenge securing assistance from a Rasputin-like former prisoner called Aegisthus.

Writing about Clytemnestra is not the first time that Tóibín has addressed maternal anger. The theme is present in The Testament of Mary and also — albeit in very different circumstances — in Nora Webster.

Exile in House of Names

Aegisthus goes behind Clytemnestra’s back and arranges the kidnapping of Orteses. This leads to a long period of exile for the young boy. At first, he is a prisoner with a group of other boys. He befriends a boy called Leander and, together with another boy, escapes. The next stage of his exile is the journey home. The boys’ odyssey is long and dangerous with violent encounters and losses along the way. At times, I thought this section of the book too long. But perhaps that is the point of exile! By the time they finally arrive, Orteses has left childhood behind.

Electra

Meanwhile, all this time, Agamemnon’s second daughter Electra has lived with Clytemnestra. A silent witness to intrigue and murder, Electra talks mostly to the ghosts of her father and sister while she waits for Orteses to return. She watches the comings and goings of her mother and Aegisthus and observes the shifting allegiances of their guards. She is the least noticed character but the one who perhaps sees and understands most.

In a sense all of the characters are like masked actors in Greek tragedy. There is a shadowy quality to them but their motivations touch on universal themes so they draw you into the story and linger in memory long after you close the book.

[Disclosure: Penguin provided an advance review copy of House of Names via Netgalley]