THE LAST GIRL opens with DC Maeve Kerrigan responding to the scene of a murder in the upmarket neighbourhood of Wimbledon in London.
The family of barrister Philip Kennford has been attacked. His wife and one of his daughters have been brutally slain, stabbed and slashed to death. A second daughter, Lydia, has escaped the killer’s frenzy. Kennford himself is discovered unconscious in his bedroom, bruised but otherwise unhurt.
Naturally, the suspicions of Kerrigan and her immediate superior, Derwent, are raised, and they believe that Kennford has murdered his wife and daughter. Very quickly, however, they discover that Kennford has what amounts to a small army of enemies who might have been inclined to vent their rage on his family …
A relatively young woman in a male-dominated world, Maeve Kerrigan has to work very hard to be taken seriously by her male colleagues. She is helped in this by the fact that her ultimate superior, Superintendent Godley, respects Kerrigan’s abilities and intelligence, and has the capacity to see beyond her gender. On a day-to-day basis, however, Kerrigan is often the butt of sexist jokes. Happily, she’s more than a match for her male colleagues in his regard, and holds her own - in public, at least. The sexist ‘banter’ is augmented by the occasional jibe about Kerrigan’s parents, and Kerrigan’s Irishness.
While Kerrigan copes very well in public with the ‘banter’ and jibes, she is a much more sensitive soul in her internal monologues. She doubts her own abilities, even as she proves herself to those around her. She worries that her skills aren’t up to the task, and that she might fail the victims of murder as a result. These are very human frailties, and make Maeve Kerrigan a very empathic character indeed.
Kerrigan also finds her personal and professional life in a constant state of collision. In THE LAST GIRL, she is in a long-term relationship with Rob, who was formerly a Detective Inspector. He had to leave the Met’s Murder Squad once their relationship became known.
Much of the personal aspect of THE LAST GIRL is driven by Maeve’s fear that her relationship with Rob, if it works out, and if marriage and children follow, will mean the end of her own career. Certainly she fears losing her ‘edge’. Thus Maeve Kerrigan is a pleasingly complex and at times counter-intuitive character, and not a woman who conforms to many of the genre’s stereotypes.
It’s something of a trope in the crime novel that a female protagonist will be better at noticing the small details that escape a man, and that the overlooked details are often crucial to the solving of a case. This can be an interesting development, if handled well, as it contrasts the priorities of the male and female gaze. That said, you run the risk of too-broad generalisations if you begin suggesting that men and women write different kinds of novels.
In the case of Maeve Kerrigan, Jane Casey is perfectly happy for Maeve to notice the small details that go unnoticed by her male colleague, Derwent. By the same token, Maeve herself doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed in a largely male-dominated arena. Thus Maeve goes out of her way to poke fun at the notion of women’s female intuition, as she does on pages 64 / 65:
“ … Godley didn’t think it was a good idea to let Derwent loose on someone who’s bound to be feeling a bit vulnerable.”In a sense, Jane Casey is having her cake and eating it here, given that Maeve Kerrigan is particularly sensitive to detail and other people’s emotional states. By the same token, it’s refreshing that Casey is happier rejecting the stereotypes than she is confirming them.
“Whereas I’m notoriously sensitive, being a woman.” [said Maeve]
Meanwhile, Casey allows Maeve certain feelings of insecurity, or even inferiority, that may well chime with those of her readers. In particular, Maeve is deeply uncomfortable - as in, way out of her depth - when it comes to wealth and class. The initial investigation takes place in a Wimbledon described by Maeve like this:
“Up the hill. Up into the rarefied air of Wimbledon Village, the pretty, exclusive little enclave where expensive boutiques, delis, galleries and cafes catered to the tastes of the locals and their apparent desire to spend my annual salary on fripperies and cappuccinos … It was leafy and lavish and a different world from where I lived, even though that was only a few miles away as the crow flew.” (pg 4)And later:
“I very much disliked being made to feel inferior because of my accent or my job or the fact that I was clearly impressed by my surroundings. Class was still an issue and only those who never needed to worry about it in the first place thought it wasn’t. I had to make a special effort to keep myself from sounding nettled.” (pg 76)On the evidence of THE BURNING and THE LAST GIRL, Maeve Kerrigan seems to me to be an unusually realistic and pragmatic character in the world of genre fiction: competent and skilled, yet riddled with self-doubt and a lack of confidence, she seems to fully inhabit the page.
This was a pacy and yet thoughtful read, psychologically acute and fascinating in terms of Maeve’s personal development, particularly in terms of her empathy with the victims of crime. I’ll be looking forward with interest to Jane Casey’s next book. - Declan Burke
For an interview with Jane Casey published last month in the Sunday Business Post, clickety-click here.