Finally, a detective who'll never be one of the boys


INTERVIEW:The crime writer Jane Casey wanted to create a character with a real background, not a load of quirks and tics, she tells ARMINTA WALLACE

LONG SUMMER evenings, whether sunny or sodden, are a great time to make the acquaintance of a crime series. But the idea of getting up close and personal with a new investigator, maverick cop or wacky detective can induce groans. All those badly dressed middle-aged men; all those dodgy CD collections.

That’s where DC Maeve Kerrigan comes in. Young, Irish and refreshingly normal, she doesn’t barge into your life brandishing a catastrophic personal history and a tatty ID so much as settle down at your kitchen table and get chatting like somebody you’ve known for years.

Which, says Kerrigan’s creator, Jane Casey, is exactly how she planned it. “I didn’t want to have that awful thing of ‘this detective loves country and western music and tapestry’, you know? I wanted a character who has a particular background, not a load of quirks and tics.”

Being young and Irish and having lived and worked in England for more than a decade, Casey is well placed to exploit the easy familiarity – but also the many tiny cultural tensions – of her character’s situation.

Kerrigan’s Irish parents are keen for their daughter to be a success, but they don’t understand why she takes her work as an English police officer so seriously – why, indeed, she’s an English police officer at all. Kerrigan, for her part, often has to grit her teeth when her colleagues make assumptions or, worse, jokes about Irishness.

Casey was happy to plunge her young heroine into this tricky, tense and highly competitive working environment, the sort of environment, she says, where a fictional character performs best. “The world of the Metropolitan Police is a very hierarchical and sexist world,” she says. “I know that it’s very hard on women – on anybody who is different in any way, in fact. You’re really supposed to conform and be one of the boys.”

Kerrigan is never going to be one of the boys. But she’s every inch their equal. In Casey’s new novel The Last Girl, as in her previous outing The Reckoning, Kerrigan is working with Det Insp Josh Derwent. He is as tough and outspoken a nut as ever stalked a crime scene, prone to outbursts of language, misogyny and whatever you’re having yourself. Kerrigan is beginning to earn his trust and, even, his admiration. They’re beginning, in short, to move from constant sparring to a genuine working partnership.

Over the course of three novels Kerrigan has changed both as a character and as a detective. “I know writers always harp on about this,” says Casey with an apologetic smile, “but to a certain extent characters do change as you write them, and take on their own life – if you’ve got it right. Do their own thing a little bit. One of the things that she’s developing is the confidence to say, ‘This is what I think,’ and not just stand there thinking, I don’t agree with this, but I can’t say anything because you’re a superintendent and I’m only a lowly DC.’

“The only thing she’s afraid of is making a mistake. That’s the thing that drives her more than anything else. Also, she does have a smart mouth that gets her into trouble every now and again. She’s not based on me, but she is based on people I know who have fallen into their work as an alternative to their lives.”

Kerrigan’s attitude to her investigations is quite different from the hard-drinking, hard-nosed detective stereotype. “Maeve more often has more in common with the victims than with anybody else in the room,” Casey says. “They’ll be looking at the body of a young woman. And she’s a young woman – and I think that gives her a different take on it. She feels, That could be me lying there, while the other officers are thinking, This person made mistakes that have put them in this position: it’s their fault they’ve ended up dead.”

On the personal front, Kerrigan has a boyfriend who works as hard as she does and a mother with an uncanny knack of phoning at exactly the wrong moment. “My mum is obsessed with Kerrigan’s mum,” Casey says. “She hopes that people don’t think that’s how we are. Maeve is always not answering the phone to her mother. She’ll think, Oh, God, I can’t deal with this now. My mother would be very upset if she thought I screened her calls in the real world.”

Does Casey have a mental picture of her young detective? “Less than you might think, because it’s all from her perspective. I’m looking over her shoulder, as it were. And she’s not very aware of her own appearance. Other people will say to her, ‘You should use your looks more.’ And she’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

Casey has resisted all attempts by her editors to provide Kerrigan with a best friend. “Where would she get the time?” she asks with a snort. “If she did have friends they’d spend all their time being annoyed with her, because she doesn’t turn up where she’s supposed to be.”

Casey has also resisted the temptation to “Oirishify” Kerrigan, or even bring her to Ireland as part of an ongoing investigation – although that day may well arrive, she says, with book number six in the series. Books four and five are already well into the planning stage, as is Casey’s first crime novel for teens, which will be published by Random House next year. “It features a murder – or possibly not a murder,” she says. “A girl goes to stay with her cousins, having never met them before. And she happens to look exactly like her cousin, who died the previous year.”

With a toddler and a three-month-old baby in the house, writing two books a year is going to be challenge for Casey. But she used to work as a commissioning editor for teen fiction and says it’s still her first love, so when she was invited by the publisher to have a go at the genre she couldn’t resist.

She gets a great deal of help from her husband, a criminal barrister who also works as a special constable for Surrey police at weekends. “My husband only prosecutes. He won’t do defence work. He always wanted to be a police officer, so being a prosecuting barrister is kind of taking up the job at the next stage. A lot of Maeve’s feeling of being on a crusade actually comes from him. I think he sees a morality in what he does; it’s very vocational.

“It’s our cottage industry of crime,” she adds with an angelic smile. “We make our living off crime, one way or another. We wouldn’t have a roof over our heads if it wasn’t for that.”

The Last Girl, by Jane Casey, is published by Ebury Press, £12.99

Sherlock's sisters

Most female investigators these days work as part of a team that features both men and women: not quite a gender-equal world, but we’re getting there. In a genre traditionally dominated by men, however, there have always been a few strong women. Here are three picks from the current crop.

Fear NotBy Anne Holt (Corvus)

Christmas Eve. Oslo’s streets are shrouded in snow, and the bells are ringing for a celebration. On one quiet street Bishop Eva Karen Lysgaard has been stabbed to death. Its a case for the criminal researcher and police profiler Johanne Vik. And, hey, a woman bishop into the bargain.

The End of the Wasp SeasonBy Denise Mina (Orion)

Alex Morrow isn’t the usual Glasgow cop. For a start, she’s five months pregnant with twins as this tartan-noir tale of murder, suicide and mayhem opens. Will she be able to stand up to it all? You bet she will.

Louisiana HotshotBy Julie Smith (Tor Boks)

Julie Smith is an Edgar winner whose books ooze New Orleans ambience. Her creation Talba Wallis, a young African-American computer whizz, is a private investigator by day and a poet and performance artist by night. What’s not to like?

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