Murder in Hampstead: why crime novel is dead familiar

Maggie Gruner talks to former corporate lawyer Sabina Manea, whose first crime novel is peopled by the ‘eccentric academics’ and ‘arty types’ who inhabit NW3

Friday, 6th August 2021 — By Maggie Gruner

Hampstead High Street

HAMPSTEAD is “inhabited by characters who are just screaming for a part in a murder mystery” according to a writer who has set her debut novel in the affluent district.

Murder in Hampstead, by former corporate lawyer Sabina Manea, who now sits as a family court judge, centres on the fatal poisoning of a retired professor, Alla Kiseleva. She collapses, convulsing, at a party at her monumental Victorian pile, Beatrice Hall.

Conveniently on the scene – having been employed to redecorate the hall – is the novel’s super sleuth, former lawyer-turned-interior designer Lucia Steer. She joins forces with the top cop on the case to investigate the crime.

The author told Review that she regarded Hampstead, with residents ranging from “eccentric academics and arty types to secretive business people and celebrities” as the perfect location for a novel.

She lived there for over a decade, and her children went to nursery in Camden and Kentish Town.

“I spent a lot of time exploring these areas and imagining the kind of stories I would write.”

Her novel is an intriguing whodunnit involving unnatural deaths, drugs, money, blackmail, false identities, Cold War spying and a clutch of characters with possible motives to kill the professor.

The novel’s Lucia, who rents a flat overlooking Hampstead High Street, is in a perfect position, while doing up the professor’s home, to snoop around and gather information.

Sabina Manea, whose debut crime novel is set in Hampstead

Lucia is sharp as a tack – almost irritatingly clever at times. She deduces how the poisoning was carried out. The ingenious method is revealed after tantalising delay.

Policeman DCI David Carliss’s willingness to collaborate so fully with a civilian outsider seems unrealistic. But neither Lucia nor Carliss pay much attention to the rules. Besides, the amateur detective is a familiar figure in traditional whodunnits, and Lucia fits the role admirably.

The hapless Carliss provides a good foil for her sharpness.

He invites her to the Georgian house he inherited from his parents in Kentish Town and reveals that the professor worked before retirement for a Bloomsbury-based organisation that was “a bit of a hub for Soviet mathematicians”. It becomes a port of call for Lucia on her sleuthing rounds.

The shadow of suspicion moves over a cast of characters including the professor’s adopted nephew, her personal assistant, a housekeeper whose son’s dead body was fished out of Camden Lock, a pair of neighbours and her GP.

Has author Sabina Manea, who was a corporate lawyer for nearly 10 years, based the character of Lucia on herself?

“In many ways, she is a fantasy version of me,” Manea said. “As a child I dreamed of becoming a private detective or a spy, and I’ve written much of those aspirations into her character. She’s smart, independent and forthright, as well as nosy and stubborn, which gets her into a lot of trouble.”

Manea said her work as a lawyer, and since April this year a family court judge, has influenced her fiction.

“As a lawyer you get a good insight into human nature, particularly how far people are prepared to go to achieve their aims. I’ve also been trained to analyse a scenario from all possible angles, and this helps when I’m crafting the trail of clues in the plot.

“Being a family court judge is a lot like being a counsellor, and it requires ‘reading’ people and understanding their motivations. In the same vein, Lucia is very sensitive to subtleties in human behaviour that others don’t spot, and this skill makes her a good detective.”

Romanian-born Manea’s passion for crime fiction was sparked by a story told by her grandmother about a distant relative who was found hanged in a barn during the Second World War after her husband, who had been home on leave, had returned to his regiment.

“It was public knowledge that she had been having an affair with a neighbour. In the absence of any evidence, the assumption was that guilt had led to her suicide, but a small detail jarred: the victim wouldn’t have known how to tie the noose in an army knot. In my overactive imagination, it was the (almost) perfect murder, and it inspired me to start reading crime fiction.”

She’d long wanted to be a crime writer, but knew it might not pay the bills, so became a corporate lawyer first.

“I enjoyed my work in many ways, but it lacked the creative freedom that I really yearned for.

“As soon as the first lockdown started I finally bit the bullet and started writing the detective stories that had been swirling around in my head all these years.”

Whodunnit fans taking a shine to the novel’s Lucia Steer have more of her exploits to look forward to. This book is the first in a mystery series featuring the feisty sleuth.

  • Murder in Hampstead: A Classic Whodunnit in a Contemporary Setting. By Sabina Manea. Published by The Book Folks, available exclusively online from Amazon, as an e-book (free with Kindle Unlimited, or £1.99) and as a paperback, £6.99

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