Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Irish queens of crime fiction rightly take the laurels this month

Declan Hughes on Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent and The Close by Jane Casey

“When I die, put me out with the bins.” That’s what Sally Diamond’s father told her, regularly, and so that’s what she did. “He was small and frail and eighty-two years old by then, so it was easy to get him into one large garden waste bag.” She dragged the bag across the yard to the barn, heaved it into an incinerator, splashed petrol on top and set it alight. Five days later, when her neighbour complains about a wild smell blowing from the barn, Sally discovers that her father’s decomposing body hadn’t burned properly, and relights the fire with rolled-up newspapers and logs.

This grotesque opening to Strange Sally Diamond (Sandycove, £14.99) encapsulates Liz Nugent’s method in more than one respect. She understands brilliantly the way the macabre and the comic combine; she has a flair for the bravura curtain raiser; and she is drawn repeatedly to socially and psychologically nonconforming characters.

When Sally’s adoptive mother dies, she refuses to go up to Dublin for the funeral; when her psychiatrist Dad returns and asks her if she misses Mum, she reassures him that she doesn’t and that he’s not to worry about her. Sally isn’t neurodivergent, she is just “emotionally disconnected”, “a bit odd”. And just as burning a body in a barn is a rather more protracted process than initially envisaged, Sally’s emergence into the world at the age of 42 (until now, she has pretended to be deaf in public to evade scrutiny and interaction) proves to be an arduous and awkward progress, and one that Nugent charts with meticulous, nuanced fidelity.

In the world, Sally operates without a filter, by turns gauche and perspicacious, and often both at once: a memorial service at the local church is arranged; when the vicar asks if she’d think of attending regularly, she says: “No, it’s very boring.” Meanwhile, at home, she works her way through the letters her father has left for her, alerting her to the horrific circumstances of her early years. Sally’s mother was kidnapped aged 11 and held in a house in Killiney, where she was raped repeatedly over 15 years, giving birth to Sally and to a boy, Peter. Peter’s narrative begins in 1974, and the book tacks back and forth between Sally in the present day and Peter over nearly 40 years, as the sins of their father work their tragic way through the generations, ranging across continents and reflecting social and cultural change.


This is harrowing territory, yet the narrative strands are suffused with energy and texture. Above all, at the centre of this troubling, ingeniously conceived, utterly absorbing novel, Sally is a terrific, protean creation, imbued with immense life force and a kind of naive charm. It is never less than enthralling to spend time in her company, and the novel’s soaring coda is a tribute to her spirit. No one is writing remotely like Liz Nugent now. She is, as Duke Ellington said of Ella Fitzgerald, beyond category.

It’s business as usual in the opening pages of The Close (HarperCollins, €19.55), Jane Casey’s rich, atmospheric, engaging new Maeve Kerrigan novel. Maeve and her junior, DS Georgia Shaw, are at the scene of a bloody murder, and then at the station to question the husband of the 34-year-old victim. But this case, which gets proceedings briskly under way and will eventually be dispatched in a quicksilver burst of Kerrigan magic, is a slow-burn sideshow to the novel’s main events.

Jellicoe Close is a nice little neighbourhood in a nice little town in the Home Counties called West Idleford. One of the houses, occupied by a nice little old lady, is suspected somehow of being instrumental in the exploitation of vulnerable individuals. The house across the road will be free for two months and in need of dog sitters, ideally a nice couple. And who better to pose as a nice couple than Maeve and DI Josh Derwent? Reluctant at first, and still shaken by her recent, traumatising break-up, Maeve decides that playing house with Derwent in commuter heaven might be just what she needs. And of course she is determined not to do anything “stupid” with him.

Casey has stage-managed Kerrigan and Derwent’s long-running will-they-won’t-they-would-they-ever routine with an exhilarating blend of sensitivity and mischief; this delirious conceit, which could be the premise for a romantic comedy, raises the stakes considerably. The relative lack of privacy in the Close means the pair will have to maintain their facade outdoors and in. As summer temperatures rise, the house heats up, and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish a fake embrace from the real thing; the ensuing scenes are funny, sexy, poignant and utterly intoxicating.

This inspired set-up also enables Casey to write what is effectively a traditional village mystery, in which a closed circle of characters are skilfully directed through a sequence of teeming, superbly staged set-piece scenes (at times, I would have liked a dramatis personae, and even a map). The suburban murk is gradually dispelled, dark secrets emerge and the multiple plot lines erupt in a thrilling series of revelations and confrontations.

As a police procedural series develops, we grow less interested in procedure and more invested in the police. After a series of maladroit, mean-girl manoeuvres in previous outings, it is nice to see Georgia step up here, both professionally and personally. It is a measure also perhaps of Maeve’s growing confidence that she is no longer perceived as a threat. With a searching, mordant, sensitive, occasionally outraged eye for social status and human error, a fearless heart and a finely honed sense of the ridiculous, Maeve Kerrigan is such a winning character. It is a testament to Jane Casey’s great subtlety and skill as a novelist that she makes us care quite so much about her.

The Irish queens of crime rightly take the laurels this month, but here are minor mentions for three other titles that are more than worth your time. The Company (Baskerville, £16.99), JM Varese’s stylish Gothic chiller; A Flaw in the Design (Serpent’s Tail, £16.99), a compulsive, richly imagined literary thriller by Nathan Oates; and The Broken Afternoon (riverrun, £16.99), Simon Mason’s thoughtful, atmospheric police procedural.

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic