Jane Casey has the sweetest smile. She’s pretty, with gloriously thick brown hair, and large, kind eyes. It’s hard to believe that behind all that softness she has murder on her mind. Yet for the past ten years she has envisaged enough grisly killing to fill nine crime novels for adults, along with a trilogy for teenagers.
She’s Irish, and, having tried, and failed to live in Dublin last year, now lives back in London with her husband, James, a criminal barrister, and her two children, but we meet in Dublin to discuss Cruel Acts, the eighth in the Ds Maeve Kerrigan series.
Leo Stone was sentenced to life for the murder of two women. He has always protested his innocence. There’s an appeal, because the jury’s decision was declared unsafe, because they had examined social media posts against the strict orders of the judge. Leo Stone is now free. Maeve, and Josh Derwent are assigned to reinvestigate the case, and, just as Maeve is convinced of Stone’s guilt, another woman goes missing.
I adore Casey’s work. Her books have the page turning appeal and high murder count associated with the genre, but she takes care to write eloquently too; and you can sense the authenticity behind her plots. She portrays contemporary concerns and teases out various issues.
Then there’s the ever-changing dynamic between Kerrigan and Derwent – a mixture of frisson, admiration and wariness.
“They step around each other like dancers. They have moments of closeness but fall back again and try and establish the boundaries between them.
“It’s a great privilege to write about people over eight books,” she says, “and to keep coming back to them. Maeve is like a really good friend who I’ve known for years, and I love finding out what’s happened to her and how does she feel this time around.”
We talk about juries, and the temptations they now face.
“The whole idea of juries is so strange when you think about it,” she says. “There is no other decision that you would hand over to 12 complete strangers. You wouldn’t ask 12 people what you should eat for lunch, yet there is a tremendous responsibility demanded of them. They have to listen to what they are told but the temptation to find out more must be overwhelming.”
Talking to the parents of the missing girls, the detectives discover two very different reactions. One set feel badly let down by the police – the others are on side. One mother, an artist, says she can no longer paint portraits because all she sees is her dead daughter’s face.
“My husband works with the police in Surrey. He was telling me about a family who had dealings with the police and how he was told, ‘be very careful. They are fragile. They don’t like us because of the way we handled their case.’
“That got me thinking. In court, the prosecutor is there to represent the state, and to enact on behalf of society but not the individual. The person in the dock has their defence, but there is no one for the victim.”
Jane does minimal research, but when the book is written, she checks everything for authenticity. How useful is it, being married to a criminal barrister?
“He’s useful in a really annoying way. I give him one of the edits, and he will pick up on procedures that are not right, but he has had to learn that in fiction, everything is not the way it should be. Derwent would never leave the office if it was realistic. He’d be stuck doing paperwork, but there is a small possibility that he could be out interviewing people.”
Jane had never imagined that she would become a crime writer. When she left Oxford University she worked in publishing. First at Mercier Press, here in Dublin, and then, in London.
“I went there in 2003 to live with James, and I got a job in children’s books. I ended up in MacMillan’s children’s department and I loved it; but in the back of my mind there was a story I really wanted to tell.”
Some years earlier, Jane had become aware of the Millie Dowler case – the schoolgirl who disappeared in Surrey.
“I’d been visiting James who was doing training at the time, and was living at home with his parents. There were posters everywhere about this missing schoolgirl. It really stayed with me. I always loved reading crime, but it took me a long time to realise that I could actually write it. I realised it was what I wanted to do, and that was the story I wanted to tell.”
She wrote that first, standalone novel whilst still working, and then came the phone call that changed everything.
“Agent Simon Trewin’s assistant, who is now my agent, picked The Missing out of the slush pile. She’s read in over the weekend and said, ‘come and talk to us.’ I remember I was shaking.
“I heard I’d got a two book deal the week I found out I was pregnant for the first time. Suddenly everything changed. I never went back to work. I thought I could do two things well, motherhood and writing, but not three.”
Even so it wasn’t easy, trying to write her first Maeve Kerrigan thriller whilst looking after a sleepless new-born.
“I ended up writing between 11 at night and 3 in the morning. I was exhausted. Writing has always been a kind of snatching, carving out a few hours here and a few there. But now the children are 9 and 7 I have wonderful whole days I can spend working.”
She talks, enthusiastically about her love of writing; her love of crime, and the fact that writing calms her.
“There’s something so satisfying about it,” she says. “It takes my mind off peeling paint and gutters. I go to bed thinking about the book and wake up thinking about it – it’s a world I can control.”
She was delighted to win the Mary Higgins Clark Award and Irish Crime Novel of the Year, but says that her many shortlisting’s are more important – because it shows you’re in contention with your peers, and are recognised for having done a good job.,
“And its commercial success that matters, because that means you can keep writing. My ambition is to keep getting better. There’s no point in it if you’re just marking time. I want to keep challenging myself.”
Writing isn’t all fun and prizes. Cruel Acts is dedicated to fellow authors Liz Nugent and Sinead Crowley, who Jane describes as her wise women.
“They were the ones who were helping while I was writing Cruel Acts, and while I was having all the ups and downs.
“The doubt is always there. Every author has the page 46 horrors. You get there and you think, why did I believe I could write this? Why did I think it was a good idea? I think authors who don’t have this self-doubt are bad authors who just churn out book after book and never question themselves.”
There was no book last year, and Jane’s readers missed it quite as much as she did, but she’s already delivered the next one.
“Now that I have a substantial backlist, people who discover me go back to the beginning and read through them all. I get these lovely tweets and emails from people saying, ‘I’ve spent the past week reading your whole back catalogue.’
“That’s wonderful. It’s the whole point of doing it – except that I’m thinking, 10 years work, and you slipped it through in a week?”
Cruel Acts by Jane Casey. Harper Collins: €14.99 Kindle: €9.51.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 25th May.
© Sue J Leonard. 2019