Brought to Book: Jane Casey on Donna Tartt, Maeve Brennan and avoiding the twist

‘If I love a book, I want to own a print version of it. My (huge) collection is like a physical manifestation of what furnishes my brain’

Born and brought up in Dublin, Jane Casey has been twice shortlisted for the Irish Crime Novel of the Year Award. The Kill, the fifth novel featuring her London-Irish detective Maeve Kerrigan, is out now, published by Ebury Press.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

The first book that broke my heart was Charlotte's Web – in some ways I'm still recovering. I will never forget the shock of reading the very wise, very wonderful ending.

What was your favourite book as a child?


I adored Anne of Green Gables, though now I feel the adults around her showed tremendous self-control by not drowning her in the Lake of Shining Waters.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Such an amazing combination of fine writing, compelling story, unforgettable characters and original structure. I know pages of it by heart.

What is your favourite quotation?

"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young." It's from Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and it contains so much in so few words – a whole crime novel, in fact. I wish PD James hadn't got to it first.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Not an easy character but complex. I prefer characters who aren't all good or all bad.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Maeve Brennan, who left Ireland for New York in the 1940s and wrote the most scintillating short stories. Her life swung from glamour to destitution and she was largely forgotten for decades. Her literary legacy is small but important.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

If I love a book, I want to own a print version of it. My (huge) collection is like a physical manifestation of what furnishes my brain.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A catalogue of paintings by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi. He specialised in pictures of mysterious people in cool grey rooms. They are somewhere between peaceful and desolate, and wholly intriguing.

Where and how do you write?

I write in the evenings usually, anywhere but at my desk – I wander the house with my laptop. I have written in departure lounges and hotel bathrooms and car parks and on trains and in cafes and in bed and most places you can imagine.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Every book changes the way I think about fiction. There's always something to learn from every novel. Recently I loved Kate Atkinson's Life After Life – such a risky book but compelling.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I love research. I need to feel the books are grounded in fact. I'm married to a criminal barrister who volunteers as a police officer. He's a walking encyclopaedia of relevant information. My new book, The Kill, deals with guns and gun clubs. I was looking at pictures of handguns on the internet in my local coffee shop and realised the guy next to me was giving me very strange looks. I didn't think it would help to explain it was for work . . .

What book influenced you the most?

Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night. It's very much of its time but still full of surprises. As a writer I love how Sayers repositions her detective, Wimsey, taking him off the page for much of the book and turning him into a proper hero.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Six Weeks by John Lewis-Stempel. Six weeks was the average life expectancy of a junior army officer in the trenches during the first World War. Most of them were just 18. So, you know, things could be worse.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Any of the books I was supposed to read for my degree.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Read, a lot. Read outside your genre, too. Write the books you want to read, not what you think will sell. Develop your own voice and let it sing. Have faith. Be brave. Work hard. Be lucky.

What weight do you give reviews?

I tend to discount the praise and obsess about the criticisms. The Kill is my fifth book about Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan so readers have strong views about what should happen to her. I'm glad they care!

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Onwards and upwards. There will always be stories; how we experience them may change. I worked in publishing for ten years and it’s a positive, creative industry. But if you have a local bookshop, support it, please. We’ll miss them if they disappear.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

There's a current obsession with having a twist in a story – a change-everything revelation. I'm not so sure they're a good idea. Erin Kelly does it brilliantly in The Burning Air but it's a difficult trick to pull off. A disappointing twist is much worse than none. And a reader who is expecting a twist reads analytically – it's much harder to absorb them in the story.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

That happiness comes with a risk of sorrow, a high price but one worth paying.

What has being a writer taught you?

To strive for perfection. You’ll fall short, but at least you’ll know you tried.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Writers are tricky, moody types, but crime writers seem to work out a lot of the angst in the books – they are great company. I can't pick my favourites from the living but I'd certainly invite Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers to join us. I'm resigned to not getting a word in.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

The bus journey in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim. I had to put the book down to recover.

What is your favourite word?

It changes frequently but “onomatopoeia” is pleasing in every way.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

I’d love to write something about London during the second World War. That sense of constant threat, the backdrop of the blackout and broken buildings, the breakdown of social barriers, the now-or-never frantic feel to human relations, the casual heroism – all potent stuff for a novelist.