Susie Steiner: Journalist and Author of Acclaimed British Crime Novels

From a New York Times obit by Alex Williams headlined “Susie Steiner, Author of Acclaimed British Crime Novels, Dies at 51”:

Susie Steiner, the author of the critically acclaimed Manon Bradshaw detective novels, who was declared legally blind from a rare disease months before she sold her first book, died on July 2 in London.

While Ms. Steiner’s run as a detective writer lasted only four years and three books, starting with “Missing, Presumed” in 2016, her impact was substantial, Sarah Ballard, her London-based agent, said. The book became a best seller in her native Britain and sold some 700,000 copies worldwide.

“Susie had an incredible instinct for people, both on the page and in person,” Ms. Ballard wrote. “I’ve lost track of the number of jackets designed to look like hers, and the number of publishers, scouts and film companies who’ve used her name to describe a genre of writing they want: They mean literary crime, with a compelling plot, an elegance and wit in the writing, combined with a depth of perception about human nature which leaves you feeling deeply satisfied.”

Susan Elizabeth Steiner was born in London, the youngest of three children. Her parents, John and Deborah (Pickering) Steiner, were both psychoanalysts. She graduated from York University in 1993 with a degree in English and worked as a journalist for two decades, including an 11-year tenure, starting in 2001, at The Guardian.

But Ms. Steiner was always drawn to the artistic challenges of fiction. In 2013, she published her first book, a literary novel called “Homecoming” about the tangled relationships and misfortunes of a sheep-farming family in Yorkshire, where Ms. Steiner’s family had a cottage on the moors.

The novel earned encouraging reviews but achieved only middling sales. Ms. Steiner soon grew intrigued with the crime-fiction genre, which promised a more structured set of narrative conventions.

“She was very good at dialogue and she was very good at descriptive writing and characterization,” her husband Tom Happold said. “What she struggled with early on was plot. But with police procedurals, you have to embrace plot.”

“Missing, Presumed” was the first of three novels centered on Manon Bradshaw, a police detective in Cambridge “whose personal life was almost as much of a mess as the cases she was investigating, but who you couldn’t help rooting for and falling in love with,” Andrea Walker, who published the book in the United States for Random House, wrote.

The New York Times Book Review listed the novel, which told the story of Manon’s search for a missing Cambridge postgraduate student, as an Editors’ Choice book. The Wall Street Journal anointed it one of the best mysteries of 2016.

Reviewing the book in The Times, Alida Becker praised Ms. Steiner’s nuanced portrayal of her lead character: “Manon is portrayed with an irresistible blend of sympathy and snark. By the time she hits bottom, professionally and privately, we’re entirely caught up in her story.”

When one online reviewer dismissed the book as a cross between Bridget Jones and Agatha Christie, Ms. Steiner took it as a compliment. “What if she has gone to a publisher with that as a pitch?” Mr. Happold asked. “How could it not have succeeded?”

Although she had found the success as a writer that she had hoped for, the act of putting words on the page was a continuing struggle because of her failing vision.

“I am losing my sight to a degenerative disorder called retinitis pigmentosa,” she wrote in a 2016 essay in The Independent. “It is dimming my vision from the outside edges in. I have good central acuity in one eye, enabling me to read and giving me a small disc of decent daylight sight.”

Her eyesight had been degrading for years. By the early 2000s, she was no longer able to drive. Even after she was declared legally blind, however, she was able to write with the aid of oversized cursors and computer fonts.

To her, vision problems were, in some ways, a blessing as well as a curse.

“My sight loss,” she wrote in The Independent, “which has begun to limit me only in the past five years, has accompanied an increase in my creative output as a novelist. The two seem intertwined, as if the less I can see of the world, the more I can focus inwardly.”

She published the next installment of the Manon Bradshaw series, “Persons Unknown,” in 2017, followed by the third, “Remain Silent,” in 2020.

Freed by her condition from the obligation to commute daily to an office, she wrote, “I stay home. I sit in the attic. I look inside myself and write what I find. This has brought me great satisfaction and happiness.”

Her equanimity in the face of tragedy was tested in 2019, Mr. Happold said, when doctors discovered a nine-centimeter tumor in her brain. She had surgery, but was told her that her condition — glioblastoma, grade 4 — was incurable, and that the average life expectancy was 18 months.

At the time, Ms. Steiner had just finished writing “Remain Silent,” a novel with a cancer-related story line.

“I wish I could go back now and put in the specificity,” she wrote in a 2020 Guardian essay. “So much of the experience of cancer is the waiting rooms, the hard chairs, the inequality between patients and medical staff — you feel so vulnerable in your elasticated slacks with your terrible hair, while they march about, passes swinging, blow-dried and in their normal world clothes. Waiting for them, terrified, in the Room of Bad News.”

Then the pandemic struck. Suddenly, her personal struggles were playing out against a global struggle. But as she wrote in the essay, “It has been easier, weirdly, to cope with my illness during lockdown, because I’m not the only one whose life is on hold, not the only one terrified of dying.”

During her newspaper career, Ms. Steiner helped make the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, an artifact of the British government’s World War II-era public morale campaign, a viral sensation by featuring it in a 2005 Guardian roundup of her favorite design items.

“I think Keep Calm and Carry On speaks to unhappiness and depression with a message of stoicism and patience, which is helpful,” she wrote in The Guardian in 2020, recalling how she first discovered the poster while on a writing retreat in Devon, England. “Or at least more helpful than becoming panicked or outraged.”

Alex Williams is a reporter in the Times Style department.

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