A meeting with lawyer and murder mystery writer Sabina Manea
The eye-witness testimony of publisher Erik Empson
As our avid readers of the genre will be well aware, a diabolical crime, a devious detective or a grumpy pathologist are not enough to make a gripping murder mystery. The devil is often in the detail. When the true perpetrator of the dastardly crime is revealed, the reader must have an “ah” moment, rather than an “oh” one. Good then that new-kid-on-the-block author Sabina Manea has a legal background. You don’t get to be a high-flying corporate lawyer by being sloppy about detail. Good also that she didn’t go on a busman’s holiday with a legal thriller but has taken a break from the courtroom and library, and explored her own favourite literary pastime – the whodunit.
The only time I could visit Sabina at home would be sometime on Monday morning when her three children have left for school and the weekend damage has been rectified. So we elect instead for a café in the centre of Nottingham, which has the clean lines and uncluttered feel I imagine Sabina hankers after.
She made the move out of the capital with her computer scientist husband three years ago but it wouldn’t be true to say she hasn’t looked back. She has recently bought a flat in London and visibly relishes returning there. It is not that her maternal duties are not challenging, rather that Sabina can’t seem to get enough of challenges. And who could swap treading on toes in the corporate world with stepping on Lego for too long?
One doesn’t need to spend much time in Sabina’s company before understanding what a force she is. Alert but reserved and unimposing, sharp but not abrasive, she has the limitless positive potential energy of a coiled spring – made out of some unearthly metal, I think. She has, I believe, invested a lot of her own character into her protagonist Lucia Steer who is equally quick witted and curious, probably much more Bolshie, but certainly just as results-driven. Lucia is something of a have-a-go hero. In Sabina’s debut novel, Murder in Hampstead, Lucia stumbles upon a homicide when trying her luck as an interior designer. Developing a taste for detective work, in subsequent books she teams up with a bumbling DCI as a civilian investigator.
Although always dreaming of a professional writing career, if Sabina chose to work in law one might dare to surmise that it was because the glass ceiling in that profession was one of the thickest and most transparent around. One imagines her waking up at the crack of dawn to give it a few whacks with a sledgehammer before proceeding to work her way around its periphery and give it a blow from above.
I wanted to delve into Sabina’s upbringing to understand where this energy comes from. She was born in Romania and as a seven-year-old girl witnessed the collapse of the Ceaușescu regime. At the age of thirteen she was sent to boarding school in the UK, and went on to study law at Christ Church, Oxford. Her English is impeccable and I idly wonder how hard she has worked to erase any errant elocution that might betray her background. Perhaps this is something a boarding school would do as a matter of course – for their own reputation if nothing else. But we shouldn’t give too much over to that. Actually, much of her mastery of the language comes from her fascination with the crime genre and fervent reading as a child.
Sabina explains that Romania was flooded with Western books after Communism. She became fascinated with Poirot which she first read in translation and then in the original. This I’d wager is one of the most efficient routes to learning a foreign language: reading texts the content of which you are familiar with. Some of the privations of Romania at the time must have added to her character. There were many shortages, often no electricity. If under Communism there was no disparity – all equally downtrodden – it was not good having no freedom of thought, she says. Western literature was a treasure trove of new worlds and she soaked it up and developed a fascination for the “immersive experience of historical mysteries”.
I probe what Sabina likes to read now, and although her favourite crime writer is P D James – who “gets it just right” – a title she raves about is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I don’t know the book but order it straight after our meeting. If it is a step beyond the crime genre, it does explain and inform some of her inclinations in fiction. The book is an elegant portrait of the lives of a small group of friends connected to the English department at the University of Wisconsin, which spans a period from the Great Depression to the eighties. It is marvellously crafted and in its observations of this microcosmic world, in Sabina’s words, makes so much out of so little. If I found some of its interiority frustrating, it is more than made up for by beholding the near-perfect balance of the author’s delivery.
When it comes to Sabina’s writing, she explains that she finds the plotting of her novels fun. And here her intelligence shines through. The books take the form of classic locked-room mysteries, like those of Arthur Conan-Doyle. There is a seemingly impossible murder, there are only so many potential suspects – it is a game of wits between the author and reader as much as the fictional detectives. Can the author bring it together? Will the reader guess who did it? Will they fall into the traps the author has set up for them?
Clearly having a legal background puts Sabina in good stead here. A lawyer must understand the position of their adversary as much as their own. They must be pragmatic, compromise, manage expectations and anticipate how the other side will respond to their gambits. In most legal battles, of course, there is a winner and a loser. But if there is a contest between author and reader, it is a win-win: Sabina gets to spin ever more intriguing tales and shut out the din of the squabbling kids; the reader is entertained by being checkmated by the author’s ruse.
After having completed a PhD on sabbatical and then returning to her legal career, she subsequently took time away to look after her young children. One might imagine the sensible thing to have done would be to have a bit of me-time. Rather Sabina has volunteered as a family law judge, and taken on board the heavy responsibilities that come with such a role. She explains that she wanted to give something back, but I suspect she was also craving the new challenge. And I imagine a fair few warring parents have, when faced with trying to get away with putting something past her, given up their proceedings and resolved that the status quo was better after all.
Even the topic of Sabina’s doctoral thesis is something most sensible people would shy away from. Choosing to explore carbon trading, she has picked a devilish, ticklish subject. You can’t see carbon in the atmosphere, but there is too much of it. It has a negative value – no one wants it. But people make it, hide it, buy it, lose it, bury it, offset it, and get enormously confused by it. It is one of the tipping points on which the future of human civilisation rests. Sabina is characteristically coy and sympathetic when I probe her for the answers to questions I can’t really formulate. But I am left feeling slightly reassured that good minds are working on the problem.
We discuss where Sabina will go with her writing. The Lucia Steer Investigations series we hope to see more of, but there is also a myriad of interesting directions her writing could take. I wonder if the frustrations of this poorly domesticated tearaway might be vented in a psychological thriller. Or if a more conventional detective-led series might blow the competition out of the water. But what I am pretty sure of is that whatever Sabina next puts her mind to, it will be something to behold.
Links to purchase the three books in Sabina Manea’s Lucia Steer Investigations series can be found here.