Jane Casey: ‘Leaving Dublin was like getting a divorce. It was so painful’
Detective Maeve Kerrigan straddles the divide between Ireland and Britain, just like her creator
Jane Casey: ‘There’s some incredibly good writing in crime, but because it’s crime it gets shunted to one side’
On one fateful day in early 2009, Jane Casey found out she was pregnant with her first child, and only a few hours later, that she’d landed a publishing deal for her first book, The Missing.
“It was a big day,” she says, over tea in a busy central London cafe. “Be careful what you wish for, right? It was everything I wanted, and it was an absolute nightmare. All of sudden, I was readying myself to have a baby and write a book.”
After this, she gave birth to a second child and another 12 books: the standalone debut, the young adult fiction series with Jess Tennant, and the award-winning series of crime books centred on the detective Sgt Maeve Kerrigan, the current trio of which were picked up by Harper Collins in a six-figure deal.
Casey arrives to the venue early, and looks impeccable with not a hair out of place and jacket and trousers that appear newly tailored to her. But there’s a doe-eyed gentleness that tempers this high-achiever; with the faintest Dublin accent, she’s so softly spoken that I need to inch my chair closer to hear her over the whirrs of the frappe blenders.
Married to a criminal barrister, whose knowledge of London’s underbelly inspired her fictional worlds, Casey lives in the riverside borough of Wandsworth after moving from Ireland to Britain to study English at Oxford. She’s been moving between the two ever since: back to work on her Masters in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College, returning to London to work, and most recently, in 2017, upping sticks with her family – her boys are now nine and seven – to live closer to her family in Dublin for a short but not very sweet time.
“I don’t want to use the word catastrophe, but I will,” she says. “We sold our place in London and bought a place [in Dublin] that we lived in for 10 months, but it did not work for us. There was just one thing after another; it was a year where my agent told me to bin a book I’d been working on, and things fell through with a publishing thing that was all going ahead until it wasn’t. It was the first time I had felt isolated working from home, because we didn’t know people in the area. And my husband likes Ireland and signed up for it, but he was still commuting to London during the week.
We just flew over at the weekend. Hopefully we’ll move back one day, but not now
“Leaving was like getting a divorce. It was so painful, but it was the right thing for us. And Dublin’s not going anywhere. We just flew over at the weekend. Hopefully we’ll move back one day, but not now.”
So while London faces an exodus of its international population as Brexit materialises, Casey swam against the tide to settle back in London.
“Thankfully where I live was a Remain area, but we know people around us that don’t want to be a part of Europe,” she says. “There’s one couple I know; she is from Poland, he is from the former Yugoslavia, they met in London, the only language they have in common is English, and their children are born here. I remember the day the referendum results came in. She had tears pouring down her face, saying ‘where do we go? This is our home. We made our home here’.”
Ireland has been singled out in the Brexit negotiations which has fostered negative sentiment in the UK, she believes.
“The stories about Ireland are not flattering,” she says. “The way Leo Varadkar is written about is hostile. I was studying over here in 1996 when the Canary Wharf bombing happened, when the IRA had been on ceasefire. Things were different here after that, it was more divided between us and them. If Ireland is the cause of Brexit not happening, I’m not sure what will happen.”
Personally and more positively, her main concern at the moment is Maeve Kerrigan, the central character her newly released novel Cruel Acts, the eighth in the series. She’s a “goodie two shoes detective” according to Casey, holding her own in a very male line of work. Living in London, the character is second-generation Irish.
“She has this thing of not really belonging to either culture, and I feel like Irish audiences understand that gulf,” says Casey. “It’s a big deal for her to be a police officer working within a British system – not something her family back in Ireland would necessarily think is a good thing. English audiences don’t always understand that there’s a clash of identities.”
The friction between her frenemy and professional partner DI Josh Derwant is another reason to keep pages turning. In this newest instalment, they’re out to put murderer Leo Stone behind bars after a successful appeal against his sentence. But just as Maeve questions his innocence, another woman disappears in similar circumstances.
The Maeve Kerrigan series is – ahem – killing it. After the Fire won Best Crime Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2015, and The Stranger I Know received The Mary Higgins Award (“she’s the goddess of crime fiction, and it’s given to a female author who writes a book she feels fits into her tradition”, Casey explains).
Still, crime fiction isn’t always viewed as award-worthy literature. Belinda Bauer’s Snap helped the genre’s PR when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, albeit with the backhanded compliment from the judges that “it undermines the tropes of its own genre and leaves us something that lingers”.
They always have a really strong ending so when you’ve finished, it feels like you’ve had a real experience
“People are doing such incredible things inside this genre,” Bauer said at the time. “There are good and bad writers within any genre of fiction.”
“The assumption that you write crime because you can’t write anything else, or you’re in it for the money because it’s popular, is really poor. People who don’t read crime can be very slighting about it.
“There’s some incredibly good writing in crime, but because it’s crime it gets shunted to one side. I read crime for fun. They always have a really strong ending so when you’ve finished, it feels like you’ve had a real experience, whether you’ve guessed it or didn’t guess it.
“Romantic fiction also gets a really bad treatment from critics, yet it’s a difficult genre to write. Everyone knows what’s going to happen, so how do you make that interesting? I have the height of respect for anyone who can keep people reading about two characters who, pretty much, are guaranteed to get together at the end of the book. The snobbery does irritate me.”
Flying the flag for female crime writers, Casey is part of the Killer Women collective, also featuring London-based writers like Sarah Hilary, writer of the Marnie Rome series, and the self-publishing trailblazer Rachel Abbott. Set up in 2015, the aim is to spread the good word of female-scribed books through events and recommendations (“we got tired of seeing men recommending other men”, Casey says). One of the newest elements is their mentoring scheme for female working-class and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers.
The scheme is designed to help new writers navigate the tricky world of publishing when contacts, insight and resources aren’t always at hand. It is supported by Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who published her crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
Casey has already delivered her ninth Maeve Kerrigan novel, which will be published next year. After that, her contract with HarperCollins comes to an end and as it stands, it’s all to play for.
Nothing is guaranteed until you’re actually working on a set, and even then, who knows?
Might we see a TV adaptation of Maeve Kerrigan perhaps?
“It’s constantly under discussion, and it hasn’t happened,” Casey says. “It’s something I’ve asked not to be told about, because I get excited and then nothing happens. Nothing is guaranteed until you’re actually working on a set, and even then, who knows?
“It’s a blessing in some ways,” she adds. “I’ve probably written a million words about her if you add it up. And the second she appears on screen, that’s her in the public’s mind. Like Lee Child said he felt Tom Cruise wasn’t right to portray Jack Reacher in the end, who was supposed to be six foot six and blonde. So I feel quite possessive about her, this person who I’ve spent all this time developing and nurturing.”
Cruel Acts by Jane Casey is published by HarperCollins