Book review: Let the Dead Speak

IN Let the Dead Speak, Jane Casey’s seventh novel to feature London-based police detective, Maeve Kerrigan, Maeve is newly promoted to detective sergeant. 

But her latest case is a baptism of fire. When Chloe Emery, an unusually naïve 18-year-old, returns home from a weekend away to discover a bloodbath in the family home, all the signs point to the frenzied murder of Chloe’s mother, Kate — except there is no body.

This is a variation on the classic locked-room mystery, a police procedural into which Casey — previously a winner of the ‘Irish Crime Novel of the Year’ — blends religious fanaticism and sexism. As Maeve and her colleagues interview Kate Emery’s neighbours, among them Gareth Selhurst, a preacher in the Church of the Modern Apostles, she uncovers horrors behind the most respectable of middle-class suburban facades. “Yes, I do,” says Maeve, without hesitation, when Selhurst asks if she believes in evil, as Casey unapologetically etches the classic battle-lines of crime fiction into her plot.

That unequivocal reply, as she faces down the ranting, patriarchal Selhurst, confirms what the reader will likely know: promotion is good for a woman. Maeve Kerrigan is noticeably more confident than the reticent character plagued by self-doubt we encountered in earlier novels, a woman who was, in public, as hardboiled and pithy as any of her colleagues (chief among them her irascible partner, Josh Derwent), but who revealed her insecurities in asides to the reader. Her new position might make the private Maeve feel a little giddy (‘One step up the ladder and the view was giving me vertigo.’), but her private and public selves are much more in synch, perhaps because Maeve, finally, has allowed herself to believe that she deserves her new responsibilities.

Not that Maeve is likely to get carried away with Pollyanna ideals about good triumphing over evil. Her unhesitating acknowledgement that evil exists isn’t rooted in any theological argument, but in the bitter experience of policing London’s streets, where even in the plusher suburbs a woman such as Kate Emery isn’t safe from the savage (male) predators who hide in plain sight among her apparently law-abiding neighbours. When Derwent tells her that she wants to make everything right, that she wants to believe in happy endings, Maeve retorts that there’s no such thing, that ‘There’s just life.’

It’s an answer that might be construed as cynical or pragmatic, particularly in a genre that delivers the ideal of justice as a substitute for a happy-ever-after. It’s a theme Casey develops as Kerrigan’s investigation does, and the focus moves from the discovery of Emery’s killer to the protecting of Chloe. The 18-year-old — technically an adult, but mentally and emotionally much younger — has become prey for the neighbourhood’s predators, because, as Maeve tells Derwent, “no-one ever taught Chloe the rules […] That your body is public property, if you’re young and female. That men will take advantage of you, if they can.” The Maeve Kerrigan novels have always had a feminist subtext; here, in tandem with Maeve’s promotion, that subtext is to the fore, as Maeve uses her new powers to go to war on Chloe’s behalf.

The result is a complex tale and a superior police procedural. Kerrigan remains one of the most likeably self-deprecating detectives on contemporary crime fiction’s beat, and Let the Dead Speak, which fairly crackles with the sublimated sexual tension between Maeve and Josh, is the most polished of the Maeve Kerrigan series to date.

Let the Dead Speak

Jane Casey

HarperCollins, €13.99, hb

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