Susie Steiner, author of stylish British crime thrillers, dies at 51

During a writers’ retreat in southwest England, Guardian journalist Susie Steiner spotted a poster that seemed to capture the essence of British stoicism in five morale-boosting words: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Printed in white block letters on a plain red background, the message was a source of comfort for Ms. Steiner, especially as she labored over her first novel, a family drama about sheep farmers on the Yorkshire moors.

When she returned to her newspaper office in late 2005, she included the poster in an article about her favorite gifts for the home, noting that the motivational picture dated to World War II and had been rediscovered a few years earlier by a secondhand bookshop in Northumberland. “Truly,” she wrote, “there is no better mantra to live by.”

After her story came out, “all hell broke loose,” said Barter Books co-owner Stuart Manley, who had started selling copies of the poster after finding one of the original prints in a box of old books. In a 2020 interview with the Guardian, he credited Ms. Steiner’s article with turning the poster into a national phenomenon, leading to a host of derivative mugs, postcards, flags and pint glasses bearing cheeky messages like “Keep Calm and Drink On.”

Like other Brits, Ms. Steiner grew exasperated by the trend, even as she took its message to heart. She spent more than a decade working on her farming novel, “Homecoming,” and by the time it was published in 2013 she had lost most of her vision to a hereditary disorder. She was deemed legally blind just six months after she sold the book at a publishing auction.

“It can sometimes seem that just when you get the thing you want most in life, something else gets taken away, as if some celestial reckoning is going on,” she wrote in an article at the time.

Relying on a small window of vision in her right eye, she went on to write critically acclaimed novels about a volatile but sympathetic police detective, Manon Bradshaw, who solves murders in Cambridgeshire even as she struggles to raise her adopted son as a single mother and confronts mundane domestic problems like a broken coat rack. “Her sexual fantasies, such as they are, generally involve men performing minor DIY while retaining their emotional equilibrium,” Ms. Steiner wrote.

Just after she turned in the manuscript for her third and final Bradshaw book, “Remain Silent,” in May 2019, Ms. Steiner was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She had written the novel, she later said, “with a 9cm tumor pushing my brain over its midline. But I didn’t know about it.”

Ms. Steiner was 51 when she died July 2 at a hospital in the Hampstead section of London. Her husband, Tom Happold, confirmed the death, of cancer.

While Ms. Steiner’s first novel was generally well received, she established her reputation as a stylish and witty writer after turning toward crime fiction with her Bradshaw books, which made bestseller lists in England and found a wide audience in the United States. The first two volumes, “Missing, Presumed” (2016) and “Persons Unknown” (2017), were shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, a top honor for British crime fiction.

Both books were “saved from sinking into soap opera by winning prose, sympathetic characters and an appreciation of life’s joys as keen as a knowledge of its dangers,” wrote Wall Street Journal reviewer Tom Nolan.

“What I loved about Susie’s crime writing was that it combined an exceptional kind of character study with a superbly plotted mystery and police procedural,” her American editor, Andrea Walker of Random House, said in an email. “Detective Manon Bradshaw’s personal life — the mystery of how she might find true love; how she might be a working parent without having a mental breakdown; how she might lose the extra 20 pounds she’s been carrying for decades — was given as much weight as the mystery behind the central crime in the story.

“Long before the proliferation of this kind of character-driven crime series on Netflix and the success of a show like ‘Mare of Easttown,’ ” she added, “Susie was writing this kind of fiction.”

Susan Elizabeth Steiner was born in London on June 29, 1971, and grew up on the city’s north side, where she studied at the Henrietta Barnett School for girls. Her parents, John Steiner and the former Deborah Pickering, were both psychoanalysts. In writing novels that explored characters’ fears, dreams, hidden motivations and desires, Ms. Steiner effectively became a psychoanalyst herself, her husband said in a phone interview.

Ms. Steiner said she was an “obsessional journal writer” when she was a teenager — “mostly melodrama about my heightened emotional states” — and turned toward journalism during her junior year at the University of York, when she started writing for a student publication called Nouse, in what she described as an effort to “make it look like I always wanted to do journalism.”

After graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in English, she wrote for newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Times of London and Guardian, which she joined in 2001. She worked there as a writer and editor, focusing on lifestyle features, while writing fiction on the side, and left the paper in 2012 to become a full-time author.

By then she had given up driving as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, the genetic condition that robbed her of her sight. As her vision diminished, writing seemed to get easier. “My sight loss, which has begun to limit me only in the last five years, has accompanied an increase in my creative output as a novelist,” she wrote in a 2016 essay for the Independent. “The two seem intertwined, as if the less I can see of the world, the more I can focus inwardly.”

Ms. Steiner married Happold, a former Guardian journalist who now runs a video production agency, in 2006. In addition to her husband, survivors include two sons, George and Ben; her parents; a brother; and a sister.

Before she began her cancer treatments, Ms. Steiner started researching a potential novel based on the life of Bernard Spilsbury, a British pathologist and pioneer of modern forensic science. That project was put on hold during her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, when reading became a “lifeline” as she turned toward books about mortality, grief and cancer, all while isolated at home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“It falls to writers to make sense of the terror of illness,” she wrote in a 2020 essay for the Guardian, “because people who are suffering — people who are lonely, sick and bereaved — need the solace that stories provide, to see their suffering reflected in the suffering of characters. I’m not sure that I will want to read lockdown novels: it’s bad enough living it. There are an additional 35,000 bereaved people or families out there now. That seems a more pressing need: to talk about grief.”

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