Remain Silent, the third in Susie Steiner’s series about DI Manon Bradshaw, is not an easy book to write about. Superficially it is a police procedural, and like all good police procedurals these days it deals with a subject that is of current social concern: in this instance the exploitation and abuse of migrant workers and the ill-feeling expressed towards them by some members of the communities in which they are housed. However, there is much more to this book than simply a straightforward narrative journey taking us through the crime, the investigation and the arrest, and that ‘more’ is to do with the difficulties that Manon faces as a working mother, trying to combine her commitment to her children with an ailing partner and a demanding and responsible job. So what’s new, you might well ask. Almost every police procedural that you pick up features a main protagonist who has major difficulties in their personal lives. Absolutely, the difference here is that the difficulties that Manon faces are realistic. She isn’t trying to deal with the fact that somebody has knifed both her parents, that she is in a same sex relationship and nobody must know, or even that she has an illegitimate child by another police officer. She is simply facing the day-to-day problems that must make life so complicated for someone whose job means that she doesn’t know when she’s next going to be able to get home and play her part in family responsibilities. Steiner’s books are not just police procedurals, they are also about the problems faced by professional workers who feel themselves torn between two different sets of commitments. So, with that in mind, I’m going to split what I have to say about Remain Silent into two sections. Firstly, a bit about the crime and the social situation which gives rise to it and secondly some thoughts about what Steiner has to say on the subject of the realities of trying to cope with the pressures of both a job and a family in a world that looks for perfection in how a woman handles both.
Steiner’s novels are set in the Fenlands and as such it was only a matter of time before she tackled the question of immigrant workers – the way in which they are brought into the country and the exploitation and abuse that is their lot once they arrive here. In this case, the plight of a particular group of Lithuanian men working in a chicken factory is brought to police notice when one of them is found hanging from a tree. The question is whether he was murdered or if his death was suicide; the answer will dictate how the death is investigated. Steiner splits her narrative between the enquiry and the background into the journey two of the migrants, Matis and Lukas, make from their home in Klaipeda. Matis has been the driving force behind the decision having
made the common mistake of thinking relocation equals reinvention, thinking his old self wouldn’t follow him across Europe.
Lukas has been less keen. He is leaving behind a loving family and a girlfriend, who will eventually be used as hostage for his silence and compliance. It is Lukas’s body that has been found.
The people responsible for the exploitation and abuse of Matis and his companions are fellow Lithuanians, running the usual racket of taking the wages of the men to ‘pay’ for their journey and living costs. However, local people are not adverse to making use of their services as well if it means that they have to fork out less than they would to a British worker. Even the Tuckers, who live next door to the house where the men are billeted, and who complain bitterly about the ill-kept accommodation and the rubbish-filled front garden, are quite happy to have a little cheap plumbing done on the quiet, and the gang master has got a nice little sideline in garden paving on the go. The Tuckers, however, are not the only people to complain about the presence of the migrants in their community. Onto the scene march the supporters of One Wisbech: English jobs for English people. Stop the flood. Foreigners go home. Led by Dean Singlehurst they troop down the cul-de-sac where the migrants live, waving their banners and shouting their slogans. If Lukas’s death does turn out to have been murder the suspect pool is pretty wide.
In many respects Steiner doesn’t have anything particularly new to say about a problem that has been well documented by press and news reports. What she does do, however, is reflect the ongoing frustration and helplessness that is felt both by the police who are trying to deal with the legal issues raised and the ordinary people who have to live with the situation on a day-to-day basis, be they the migrants themselves or the other people in their communities. And this, I think, is where the strength of her writing lies. One of the points that she picks up on is the way in which there is so often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation about which we actually know very little and how inappropriate that reaction therefore is. Knowing very little, she says, is fine if you know that you know very little: that you know that you don’t know what you don’t know. The problem comes with those people who don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know:
this is the age of stupid. In place of knowledge people are exalting their gut feeling as if that feeling is more valuable than being informed. When actually, what gut feeling generally is, is prejudice.
Steiner also has important points to make about the consequences of the way in which society has encouraged, in particular, men to feel that they have a right to be happy and empowered all the time. She speaks of
marginalised white men of a certain age.
These men are equally wrongfooted by clever young women, clever young Muslims, clever young gay men – anyone who appears to have access to the crucial information they lack. Information about modernity, how to live, how to prosper, how it all works.
Even Mark, Manon’s partner, when he has taken ill, refuses to talk about how he is and what is happening. Mark is a good man but admitting that he is in a situation in which he is powerless is something that he simply doesn’t know how to do. That way frustration lies and frustration often leads to some sort of inappropriate outburst.
And then there is the way in which she addresses Manon’s problems juggling a relationship, her children, her friends, and her work. Rather than worrying about whether or not her double life is about to be exposed, or her adoptive brother is about to crawl out of the woodwork and attack her, or her family‘s history of involvement in drug-running is going to come to light, Manon is much more concerned with the same sort of things that will concern any working mum. Is she going to be able to pick the children up after school? Is her relationship suffering because of the hours she is working? Is she putting weight on? How can she deal with the seemingly never-ending exhaustion? Manon Bradshaw is a real human being with ordinary everyday concerns and Steiner’s work reminds me of how many of the leading characters, not just in police procedurals, but much of genre fiction, are not.
Remain Silent works as an extremely good crime novel, but it is even better at exploring the pressures that a professional working mum, one who cannot simply walk away from the job because her shift is over, faces on a daily basis. Whether Manon decides to stay in the job or comes to the conclusion that enough is enough is something we will only know if there is a fourth book in the series.
With thanks to Harper Collins UK, Harper Fiction and NetGalley for a review copy.