Fair cop the main draw in gripping crime procedural
Fiction: Let the Dead Speak, Jane Casey, Harper Collins, hbk, 390 pages, €14
Perhaps ironically - or, now that I think about it, perhaps not - crime fiction has long proved fertile ground for women writers, these days more than ever. Since her debut in 2010, Dubliner Jane Casey has briskly carved out her own space in the field, with the London-based Maeve Kerrigan series of police procedurals.
The latest instalment, Let the Dead Speak, is my introduction to her work. I tore through it in more or less one sitting, finishing off by metaphorically beating myself over the head and wailing: "Why have you never read Jane Casey until now, dumbo?" This, my friends, is a really fine crime novel.
We open on a brief prologue, in which beautiful but intellectually challenged 18-year-old Chloe Emery returns to her mother's Putney home after a weekend with her (divorced) dad in his country pile. Blood is spattered all over the walls and the carpets. Clearly, something terrible has happened here.
The case comes to Maeve, newly promoted to Detective Sergeant. Working alongside her old sparring partner Derwent and newbie Georgia, and under the watchful eye of their boss, Una Burt, Maeve begins her inquiries.
The first stumbling block to a quick resolution is this: there's no body. So the killer/killers had to have moved it. A sniffer dog leads them to an unoccupied house nearby, and soon, the secrets and lies of this nice middle-class street begin to be revealed.
Casey assembles a superb cast of characters, whether heroes, potential villains or innocents swept up in the rushing stream of events. Kate Emery is a suitably ambiguous murder victim.
The Norris family across the street are memorably hideous: controlling Oliver, predatory Morgan, annoyingly fretful Eleanor and cagey teenage daughter Bethany.
William Turner is a cocky "bad boy", previously suspected of a knife attack, but charming in a slippery sort of way. Even minor characters, like the greasy old codger who rents storage units or the pretty estate agent selling Kate's house, are expertly, colourfully drawn.
At the heart of the story are Maeve and Derwent. They're a great double-act, forever grousing at each other but bound - by loyalty, collective past experience, a shared sense of duty - to each other, in some ways more profoundly than any married couple.
And DS Kerrigan is a hugely likeable main character. You fear for her and root for her. You want her to crack it. You want her to be happy in life.
As Derwent says after one hair-raising close call along a railway line: "Do you know why I like working with you? You do the job with all your heart. You really care."
But Kerrigan's a tough cookie, too, brave and resolute when needed.
Crucially, Casey doesn't linger too long on colouring in the background and fleshing out the actors - much to my contentment. I love crime novels but never really took to series.
I find they spend too long on revisiting the cast, reminding you of all their little quirks, and so on, and not enough time on the basic imperative of crime fiction: working out, like the detectives, who done it, and how, and why. Let the Dead Speak, though, is driven by plot.
Character, as the man says, is revealed through action; not authorial description or exposition.
The story is dizzyingly complex at times - a broiling, festering stew of betrayal, blackmail, zealotry, obsession, envy, violence, repression and (imagined or real) damnation - but never becomes unwieldy or nonsensical.
There are gear-shifts that surprise and twists that always make sense and feel right. There are also moments of almost excruciating tension, particularly the scenes involving Morgan or Oliver Norris: two "bad articles", to use that great Hibernicism, albeit in very different ways.
Clever, assured, skilful and often thrilling, Let the Dead Speak grips you from the jump and doesn't let go. It gets in there, kicks ass and does the job just right - rather like Maeve Kerrigan, in fact.