I had an interview with Jane Casey (right) published in the Sunday Business Post a couple of weeks ago - there’s no link, I’m afraid, so I’ve republished the piece in its entirety here. To wit:
It is one of literature’s great tragedies that not every writer can manage to look like a wig-wearing bag.
“I always get comments about not looking or sounding like a crime writer when I do events,” says Jane Casey. “I haven’t yet managed to find out how I should look and sound. Agatha Christie looked like a bag with a wig on it, after all.
“It’s not a comment that I mind, much,” she continues. “But I did an event last year where I was reading with three other authors, all male, and I thought that in comparison to them I sounded like I was reading a school project. So maybe I still need to work on the gravitas.”
THE LAST GIRL is Jane Casey’s fourth novel, and the third to feature her series heroine Maeve Kerrigan. London-born to Irish parents, Maeve is a Detective Constable with the London Metropolitan Murder Squad.
Born and raised in Ireland, now living in London, Jane got the highest mark in English in her Leaving Certificate year, and received a medal to mark the achievement from Seamus Heaney. She read English at Oxford (where she would read crime novels whilst supposedly writing her thesis on Beowulf in the Bodleian Library) before completing a MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.
Given her classical education, what was it about the crime novel that drew her to write in the genre?
“I can’t think of anything more telling about society than what we hold to be criminal acts,” she says. “Crimes occur because of how people live and how they relate to one another, essentially, which is the basis of literature. Go back to the start of literature itself and you find one of the first dramas, Oedipus, is based on the crime of patricide and its aftermath. Within the parameters of the genre you can write about more or less anything because crimes occur at every level of society.
“Some of the sharpest social commentary can be found in crime novels. I’m not totally sure why it’s seen as being ‘light’ or ‘entertaining’ in comparison with more challenging fiction, because you don’t get much darker than murder.
“It’s a generous type of literature for a writer,” she says, “because it can include pure tragedy alongside broad humour, or lyrical description followed by brutal dialogue. There are conventions to be observed but there’s no single style of writing that defines the genre. So there’s a freedom there to do what you want.”
According to those very genre conventions, Maeve Kerrigan, as a young woman in an Old Boys’ world, should be utilising her feminine wiles to stay one step ahead. Time and again, however, Maeve herself is to be found mocking her supposed ‘female intuition’.
“A large part of Maeve’s survival strategy is her ability to see a put-down coming and dodge it,” says Jane. “She wouldn’t like to think that she’s good at her job because of her female intuition, but then she likes to see herself as one of the boys. She’s young. She hasn’t yet realized that she doesn’t have to fit in with them.”
Perhaps Maeve Kerrigan aspires to a similar quality of gravitas as Jane Casey when dealing with her male colleagues, but it can be argued that such a character development would hugely diminish Kerrigan’s appeal. Maeve Kerrigan is an ambitious and dedicated policewoman, but she is possessed of an endearingly charming irreverent streak and a wilful refusal to accept arbitrary limitations that is as destructive in her professional life as it is in her personal affairs.
She is also, and unusually, exercised by the long-term impact of crime on its victims. Married to a criminal barrister, Jane Casey is privy to the harsh realities of the legal system.
“Victims and their families are really invisible in the legal system,” she says. “The prosecution acts on behalf of the state, not the wronged individual, and the rights of the defendant are considered at all points. It’s a bruising world to encounter. A lot of the characters in THE LAST GIRL have been through the criminal justice system and haven’t seen anything remotely resembling justice.”
THE LAST GIRL opens with the discovery of the bodies of a mother and daughter in their plush Wimbledon home, both of whom have been stabbed to death. Upstairs lies the unconscious and bloodied form of Philip Kennford, husband and father, and a successful criminal barrister with a reputation for arrogance and sexual predation.
“There are certain professions that attract charming sociopaths, and the Bar could be one of them,” says Casey. “Barristers are generally delightful to talk to and full of good stories, but they do like to be right all the time and their work involves winning or losing – you don’t get many draws. It’s a challenging, responsible job that demands a certain toughness, which is interesting in itself. I’ve heard tales of barristers behaving extremely badly in their personal and professional lives, but the only sociopath I’ve ever met myself is not a barrister.
“Obviously,” she adds with a mischievous grin, “Philip Kennford is not based on my husband.”
Twice nominated in the crime fiction category for the Irish Book Awards, for THE BURNING (2010) and THE RECKONING (2011), Jane Casey is one of the brightest stars in the Irish crime writing firmament. But where some publishers are suggesting that Ireland is not ‘sexy’ enough a setting to market to an international crime reading audience, Casey’s publishers have made a virtue of Maeve Kerrigan’s Irishness, going so far as to include a Personnel File on the inside cover of THE LAST GIRL with her Irish parentage highlighted.
“My publishers would love me to write a Maeve story set in Ireland,” says Casey. “I wouldn’t do it for the sake of having an Ireland-set book, though. It would have to be the right story.”
In part, Maeve Kerrigan’s distinctiveness depends on the novels’ London setting.
“Maeve is a misfit in various ways and one of those is her own sense of estrangement. She doesn’t fit into the very British world of the Metropolitan Police, but she isn’t like someone who’s grown up in Ireland either. I think she does have uniquely Irish qualities, in that she has empathy in bucket-loads and a strong desire to understand the people she encounters through her job, whereas her colleagues tend to take people at face value. She’s also tied to her family very much, whereas - and this is a sweeping generalization - the British don’t seem to have such a sense of obligation to their parents. You have the feeling that Maeve’s parents have made sacrifices for their children, among them leaving Ireland and settling in London, and they expect to be paid back by their children achieving in life. Maeve has chosen a path they don’t understand, probably deliberately, just to get out from under that weight of expectation.
“Maeve’s background is also important to how she’s perceived by her colleagues. It’s still common for Irish people to be seen as charming but untrustworthy, fundamentally unreliable. So she has all of that prejudice to deal with too.”
Crime writers too face a certain amount of prejudice: charming books, perhaps, but fundamentally unreliable as literature.
“There are plenty of very good writers out there who are happy to define themselves as crime writers,” says Casey, “I’m proud of the title myself and I’d be sorry to lose it. But the definition of a crime novel is changing all the time. That boundary between literary writing and crime writing is thin, and the crime-writing community tends to be welcoming to ‘real’ writers who want to try crime. I’m not sure if the same is true going in the other direction …
“As a genre, it’s probably not valued as highly as it might be, at least in terms of the way it is criticised and discussed in the media. But readers of crime fiction are a sophisticated and discerning lot – pleasing them is enough of a challenge for me. I write the books I want to write.”
As a former children’s books editor, that includes writing a new Young Adult novel. It also means that a woman who has become a mother since her first novel was published feels fully entitled to adapt her thematic concerns to her new circumstances.
“The narrator in my first book, THE MISSING (2009), is a young woman who doesn’t understand her mother’s inability to move on after the disappearance of her young son. The character of the mother is one of the most damaged I have created, and yet now I realise I didn’t even get close to conveying the agony you might feel if your child disappeared.
“I couldn’t write the book now as I did then,” she says, “but that’s probably true of every book by every writer. They’re all the product of your experience. At the moment I don’t think I could write about a child suffering.” Another mischievous grin, a flash of irreverence. “Maybe that means I should tackle it.”
Jane Casey’s THE LAST GIRL is published by Ebury Press
This interview was first published in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.