Award-winning Irish crime author Jane Casey told David Hennessy why she feels we have to protect journalism, why the UK is paying for allowing the privileged to govern in times of coronavirus and why John Connolly said something about her private parts at a literary festival.
New offering The Cutting Place is the ninth book Jane Casey has written to feature London-Irish detective Maeve Kerrigan. It is also the follow-up to Cruel Acts which won her Irish Crime Novel of the Year last November.
Jane’s latest novel puts Maeve on the hunt for the killer of a freelance journalist named Paige who was trying to uncover the truth behind a secretive and shadowy organisation named the Chiron Club.
“I’m delighted,” Jane told The Irish World. “I think I was lucky that it came out at all because I think a lot of people’s books have been pushed back.
“I was in two minds about whether publishing the week after lockdown happened was a good idea but actually people are at home, they want something to read, they want something to take their minds off what’s going on around them and the response from readers has been brilliant.
“All things considered, I’m really happy that it has come out, that people are responding to it and that I’m making some people happy which is a great feeling.
“The Cutting Place is the ninth book in the series and people really feel like they know her and they have very strong opinions about what she should do next. How she should handle certain situations and they genuinely worry about her in a way that I find very pleasing. I think because she’s a little bit vulnerable, that isn’t that common in crime fiction or wasn’t that common in crime fiction, people have a different emotional response to her.
“She’s not going to go in and beat someone up and get the truth out of them, she’s going to take a different approach.”
Maeve will certainly need a different approach in The Cutting Place as she finds herself with nothing but dead ends due to the investigative and provocative work of her victim being of a freelance nature, in other words that she may not be missed by anyone in particular. It is a story that has its origins in the murder of a Swedish freelance journalist:
“In 2017 Kim Wall, who was a Swedish journalist, interviewed this Danish man who had his own submarine. He took her out on the submarine and he killed her. One of the things that really stuck with me about that and gave me the idea for Paige was that she was on her own. She didn’t have any back up. She told her boyfriend where she was going but she didn’t have a news organisation behind her. She had to find the story, do the research and then sell it so she wasn’t safe doing her job because of that and that really triggered something for me.
“I did a year’s journalism training before I went to university and I discovered I’m absolutely terrible at asking people questions. I don’t like putting people on the spot. I don’t like upsetting people. Most journalists don’t either but you have to be prepared to ask the difficult question if there is one to ask.
“I realised it wasn’t for me but I think it’s a very noble profession. As the media landscape changes, it’s getting more difficult in so many ways.”
You can’t talk about murdered journalists in an Irish context without mentioning Veronica Guerin, the Irish crime reporter whose slaying by the vicious gang of John Gilligan led to the establishment of Ireland’s Criminal Assets Bureau. This was also a story that had an impact on Jane.
“I remember when that story happened and just being so profoundly shocked by it that anyone just doing their job would be a target in that way. I think it was a real watershed in Ireland in many ways, and around the world actually. After it happened there was a tremendous response to it because it was just such a shocking act. It’s very easy for us to forget how important good journalism is and how the people who do it are at times putting themselves in danger so that they can bring the truth to us.
“I feel that we need to protect journalists and protect that media world.”
Privilege and entitlement are also explored in The Cutting Place. As Maeve investigates the shadowy club, she comes up against some wealthy upper class people who think they are literally above the law.
Jane was educated at Oxford and saw that sort of privilege but is quick to say not everyone there is like that, far from it.
“It’s full of very normal, very bright people who are there because they are clever not because they have the right kind of voice or background.
“But there is a layer of people who have been at very good schools who got in because they have been prepared very well and they didn’t do a tap of work. They spend their time socialising and were incredibly arrogant and unfortunately in the government who are running the UK now, you can see the consequences of that. If you just have an effortless rise to privilege, then what do you learn along the way?
“Obviously none of us knew what was going to happen with this virus but I feel like the way they have acted about it is entirely in character with that kind of privilege and arrogance and expectation that everything will fall their way.”
On the topic of how the different countries of Ireland and the UK have dealt with Covid-19, Jane says: “I always feel like it’s like we can see them but they can’t see us. It’s like that one-way mirror glass that you get in police stations in the interview room. We’re watching what’s happening and we’re like, ‘Hang on a second, can you not see that we’re doing it differently in Ireland and there’s a good reason for that?’
“I live in London but I get a lot of my news from Ireland so one eye is looking that way, then you turn on the BBC and think, ‘Hold on a second, the message is totally different here but how can that be?'”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly said the UK was going to do the right thing at the right time and that his government was going to be guided by the science. Ireland locked down much earlier than the UK. The UK has recorded more coronavirus deaths than anywhere else in Europe.
“Nobody is outraged enough. I think everybody is in shock and I understand that. I think this attitude of ‘There’s nothing that could be done or should be done’ is wrong and eventually I hope those chickens come home to roost.”
Although Maeve starts The Cutting Place very happily in a new relationship with a new boyfriend, Seth turns out to be too good to be true with attentiveness turning to manipulation and control and then violence.
Although Maeve is a detective and reads people for the living, she misses the early signs of Seth’s true nature, even blaming herself when he first lashes out? “This is something women do a lot, I think. They tend to take the blame for things when maybe they don’t deserve to. I’m really wary of climbing into the pulpit or lecturing people or giving out when I’m writing but it’s an opportunity to address things that maybe haven’t been addressed before.
“One of those is you can be manipulated in a relationship and you can be on the back foot a lot of the time without really realising it until after. It’s hard sometimes to recognise what’s going on when you’re in the middle of something, even for Maeve who is very experienced and she’s a police officer. She finds herself in a very difficult situation. It was important to me to be honest about that and explore it the best I could.
“Seth’s character is a very common kind of man unfortunately, one who wants a beautiful, confident, clever, intelligent woman to be his partner but actually doesn’t feel confident enough in himself to let her be those things. He has to be in charge.”
Jane’s award-winning Cruel Acts saw Maeve discover some bodies in a septic tank. Was this a small reference to the Tuam mother and baby home where nearly 800 babies were once said to have been discovered in a septic tank?
“The thing about being an author of any kind is that everything that you read has some influence on you. The story of Tuam was so heartbreaking and so devastating that I don’t feel ready to write about it directly but I think nodding to it is probably what that was.
“There’s definitely some of that kind of anger and outrage that anyone would treat people in that way but when you think of Tuam, it was such vulnerable, tiny children.
“I know that crime writers are going to write about it because we always end up writing about these things. I know that authors are going to write about it because I think it’s a really defining moment about Ireland’s past, in a bad way.
“There’s an ethical question about taking someone else’s tragedy and making it into part of your novel. I think it’s a really important thing that we write about these things and think about them.”
Has there ever been interest in developing the Maeve Kerrigan series for the screen? “There has but nothing has come of it yet. I would really love to see them on screen but at the same time I feel very lucky to develop them in my own time and to have total control over what happens to the characters. I’ve been really lucky with being able to just take my time with them and let them get to the point that they’re at now without rushing anything.
“I would love to see it happen. I don’t know if it ever will happen but I think I just have to enjoy that I’ve had total control up to this point.
“People, when they read the books, form very strong opinions. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Of course, Maeve has red hair’. She actually doesn’t and I’ve never said that she does but for some readers she does.
“It’s an assumption that they make and that’s fine but for me the character doesn’t,” Jane laughs.
Other characters mention Maeve’s Irish heritage occasionally so you know it’s a strong part of her identity. Jane tells us that Maeve has certainly played some camogie and done some Irish dancing in her time.
“She’s grown up in London but her parents are both Irish. I recognise this myself: You want your children to have a better life than you had but all the good things you had.
“So they definitely made Maeve go to Irish dancing lessons, they definitely made her do camogie, they definitely dragged her to as many Irish themed things as they could even though she was growing up in London.
“I love that difference that there is between Irish culture and British culture. It’s amazing how different we are when you consider how close the islands are to each other. For a writer there’s great fun in that kind of tension and the different reactions we have to things.
“I like the fact that Maeve doesn’t really fit in, she has this very different background and her reactions to things is going to be different.”
Originally from Castleknock in Dublin, Jane lives in south west London with her husband and children and is currently writing a novel outside of the Maeve detective series that started in 2010.
“It’s supposed to come out next Spring and it’s going to be a standalone novel about a young female barrister who is being stalked and she recruits a man she once defended to help her. Even though he is one of the most dangerous men she’s ever met, she has to trust him to try and save her life.”
Jane’s husband is a barrister which comes in handy for Jane’s crime writing: “He’s very useful to have around. I have to say the barrister in this story is more inspired by people i know through him, people he works with and women who have a very different experience of doing prosecution and defence work.
“I’m always interested in that, how women experience the world a little bit differently. The things that are obvious to us that are maybe not obvious to men. That’s something I really enjoy writing about in fiction. I think difference is always interesting.”
Jane looks back to Cruel Acts being named crime novel of the year and says this was a huge honour especially as Irish crime writing is booming now with new and exciting authors.
“It feels like a different life time ago but it was last November when I won crime novel of the year. It was amazing and it was particularly amazing because the shortlist was extraordinary. I said on the night and this is absolutely true: They could have had another shortlist with as many books on it that would have been equally good and equally would have deserved to be up there.
“I think Irish crime is going through a real period of exciting development.
“It was extraordinary to be given the award considering the choices that the judges had were so strong.
“I went up to collect the award and had a real out of body experience. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
“Crime is really popular with women. When you do events, about 70% of the audience is female. Women enjoy it. There are many amazing Irish women writing crime at the moment. I’m part of a big posse of brilliant writers who are being very inventive with the genre so it’s a really exciting time to be writing stories for and about women but they’re not just for women, hopefully men enjoy them too.”
Jane has revealed she has not always been comfortable with making public appearances as an author but says now, “I have many stories of small humiliations that I’ve experienced over the course of being an author and audiences love those, so I just share all my worst moments and we all a laugh.”
Having anecdotes at the ready has helped here. What is the anecdote that always works for Jane? “It isn’t rude but it sounds a bit rude. It was a review that I got on Amazon for the first book in the Maeve series and it was a German national who had written it but he had written in English.
“He felt there was too much about Maeve’s private life in the book, he would have preferred to focus on the crime. The last line the review was, ‘In conclusion, I enjoyed this book but I felt Jane Casey’s private parts were too long’.
“I’m not lying about this. That is genuinely what he wrote.
“I told it once at a festival with John Connolly who is one of the great Irish crime authors. It was a two day festival and I told it on the first night and then it was a different audience for the second event on the second day. John made some reference in passing to my private parts and because nobody there had heard the story. It just fell silent and I’m just going, (whispering) ‘These are not the same people, they don’t know what you’re talking about’.
“I really wanted to tell the story to explain what he meant but there wasn’t an opportunity to do it so to this day there are about 300 people walking around thinking, ‘That was a very odd moment when John Connolly said that about Jane Casey’s private parts’.”
The Cutting Place is out now from Harper Collins.