Susie Steiner, who has died aged 51, three years after being diagnosed with incurable brain cancer, was once asked how similar she was to Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw, the member of the Cambridgeshire Major Incident Team first encountered by readers in her 2016 novel Missing, Presumed. “Manon is only 98.34% me – the rest is pure invention,” she responded.
Although she was evidently joking – she had never been a police officer, and nor was she unhappily embroiled in the world of internet dating, as Manon is at the beginning of her fictional life – her answer had a core of truth. It was Steiner’s interest and intuitive understanding of the dynamics between people, her ability to be alive to the complexities of their desires and their frailties, and her commitment to exploring questions of justice and equality, that animated her protagonist and made her so memorable.
DS, and later DI, Bradshaw – her unusual first name, readers learn, is the Hebrew for “bitter”, and a caprice by her mother – had three outings: Missing, Presumed, which centerd on the abduction of a young woman whose well -to-do parents are friends with the home secretary, placing the investigative team under increased pressure; Persons Unknown (2017), in which Bradshaw’s adopted son, who is black, is arrested on suspicion of murder, and which was inspired by a real case; and Remain Silent (2020), published not long after the beginning of lockdown, which explores a violent death in the Lithuanian migrant worker community and which also sees Bradshaw faced with her partner’s cancer diagnosis.
Steiner, unbeknown to her, had written Remain Silent with “a 9cm tumour pushing my brain over its midline” and, in a piece she wrote about writing, cancer and lockdownshe described wishing she could have included the specificity of her treatment in the novel: the hard chairs in waiting rooms, the contrast between vigorous medical staff and depleted patients.
The impulse to capture detail was typical of her writing. Born in north London, the daughter of two psychoanalysts, Deborah (nee Pickering) and John Steiner, Susie went to Henrietta Barnett school and read English at York University before embarking on a career in journalism. She started out at the Hendon and Finchley Times before stints at the Times and the Telegraph led her to a job as a features editor and writer at the Guardian in 2001.
She remained at the paper for 11 years, although she was out of the office at a writing retreat in Devon when she spotted a poster on the kitchen wall bearing the words Keep Calm and Carry On. She discovered that it had originated in an independent bookshop in Alnwick, which she contacted so that she could recommend it to readers of Weekend magazine.
She was cheered, she later recalled, by its “message of stoicism and patience”, although its phenomenal popularity also prompted her to insist, semi-humorously, that she could not be blamed for its subsequent ubiquity. (Posters were clearly something that caught her eye: in Persons Unknown, she introduces the shopkeeper Birdie Fielding, who often consults one emblazoned with the image of Tony Blair for advice. Birdie cropped up in a piece that Steiner wrote about the perils of “writer’s butt“While some authors’ fantasies are about sex and death, mine are very much centerd on unfettered access to the crisps aisle. I dwell on Frazzles a lot in this novel. As Birdie says: ‘Whoever said nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, has never set in on her third mince pie.’”)
While at the Guardian, Steiner met the journalist Tom Happold (who is now director of the creative video agency Happen Digital); they married in 2006, settled in West Hampstead and had two sons, George and Ben. Steiner, her husband told me, had always wanted to have children and was a very loving mother; and the compassion and empathy with which she portrayed Manon Bradshaw’s experience of single life and childlessness, after which she first adopts a child and later becomes pregnant, is striking.
She worked on her first novel, Homecoming (2013), for several years, drawing on her knowledge of the North York Moors, where she and Happold had a cottage, to create a multi-generational portrait of a farming family. But it was with the Bradshaw series that she really found her fictional feet, earning praise from readers, reviewers, her fellow crime writers and prize juries; she was twice shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier novel of the year award, and Missing, Presumed was selected for a slot in the Richard & Judy Book Club. A great admirer of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, she too had the ability of combining strong characterisation with social commentary, and folding both into a compelling plot.
She faced challenges that, like the poster, she popularized, required stoicism and patience. Steiner suffered from a hereditary and degenerative sight, retinitis pigmentosa, which was diagnosed in childhood and worsened in adult life; In 2013, she was registered blind. Her friend the novelist Lissa Evans described fast-paced walks on Hampstead Heath, in which she would forget that Steiner had little vision, so engrossed were they both in their; she was, said Evans, “so clever and funny, straightforward and kind, warm yet caustic, penetrating yet easy to talk to, a huge presence in an ordinary-sized person.”
In a piece for the Independent on Sunday about her blindness that cited Milton, Joyce and the mythological figure Tiresias, Steiner wrote fascinatingly about the links between her condition and writing, saying: “You are reliant on another’s help. You cannot dictate – you must wait. This is both frightening and difficult but, I believe, is of service to the writer.” It allowed her to appreciate, she was convinced, the sometimes invisible suffering of others.
The greatest blow was the discovery, in May 2019, of a grade 4 glioblastoma, after which she underwent six hours of brain surgery and months of radiation and chemotherapy; she wrote movingly of her situation both on social media and in print, retaining great humor even in exceptionally dark times.
She is survived by her husband and sons, her sister, Kate, and brother, Michael, and her parents.