First, a disclaimer. I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and so is Roz Morris. That’s as far as the connection goes; I’ve never met her, though I’ve seen plenty of her posts and know quite a bit about what she has to say about writing. I did not get this book free; I paid to download it, and I downloaded it because I wanted to read it. I have read a number of books by ALLi members; I’ve reviewed some of them and not others. My general rule is that I don’t publish a review unless I can give the book at least three stars (I made an exception last week for the latest Louise Penny book), but for ALLi members I increase that to 4 stars – if I can’t give an ALLi member’s book at least four stars, I don’t review it. (If you are an ALLi member, you know I’ve read your book, and yet I didn’t review it, now you know the reason).
I have read a number of “How To” writing books – I imagine most writers have. Not many stick in the mind. Some were not very good at all, most were reasonably informative but forgotten after a while – and a very small number were absolute winners. This is one of those.
I write about people. I mean, I also write about events, and ideas, but people are what come first. People are what most interests me. (If I weren’t a writer, you might even call me nosy). I think that comes across in my books; a number of people have told me how invested they became in my characters. Nevertheless, I learned an enormous amount from Roz Morris’s book. She’s very good on “show, don’t tell” and she has some great stuff on how you can show things through what your characters do, what they say and how they look. She is also very good on handling minor characters, which is where a lot of people fall down. Her background as a ghost writer and editor has equipped her, first to know how to create the characters she wants to portray and then to tell other writers how to do the same.
This, obviously, is a book for writers. That doesn’t mean non-writers will get nothing out of it – even if you are not a writer, reading about how good writers create and portray characters will probably help you get more from the next book you read. But if you are a writer then, unless you are among that tiny, tiny minority who never get a character portrait wrong, you need to read this book. You need to absorb what it says. And act on it.
I very nearly missed this. First of all, Susie Steiner used to work for the Guardian and I haven’t knowingly read anything by an inmate at that home for the differently sane since the days of Saint Mugg. Then, when I read a positive review of Steiner’s latest book in the Sunday Times, I followed my usual practice of ordering the author’s first book, The Homecoming. All I can tell you about that is that the first third is very well written but not my sort of thing. I didn’t get further than the first third, so I can’t tell you any more – except that it is not a crime novel, and crime novels were what the Sunday Times review had led me to expect. I’m still not sure why I persevered. Perhaps it was because The Homecoming, though not for me, was so well written and the characters so clearly understood by the author. Anyway, persevere I did, and I bought her second book, Missing, Presumed. This IS a crime book and it’s one of the best I’ve read for some time.
This is a heavily oversubscribed genre and writers are giving us every kind of dysfunctional nutcase as a copper in the hope of triggering interest from a TV company. And many people would call Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw a dysfunctional nutcase – but, if she is, she is an exceptionally well realised dysfunctional nutcase. In fact, in many ways, this is a novel about dysfunction. What Susie Steiner gives us is:
- A whole cast of well realised, fully understood characters
- A well worked out plot
- A satisfying ending that matches both plot and cast.
There are some really tasty attractions. The missing woman, Edith Hind, is a stunning model of self-absorption reminiscent of the “hero” of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Her chap is another. And as for the lonely detective sergeant’s idea of wooing, if I thought she had my address, I’d turn out the lights and lock the doors.
Steiner is at home, whether writing about the upper crust or the underclass. On the one hand, we have a surgeon to the Queen who thinks nothing of calling his old school friend and Bullingdon co-member, now Home Secretary, to get the police moving in his preferred direction. On the other, we have a mother struggling (and failing) to give her 10-year-old son even the most basic survival tools (food. Warmth. Shelter). And we don’t hesitate to accept either portrait.
An excellent book, which I warmly recommend.