There are not many things better than a book which completely subverts expectations and takes you places unexpected. Few have done so with as much vigour and brio as Triona Scully’s novel Nailing Jess. Knowing nothing about it beforehand, I had guessed from the cover and the promise of “The Most Shocking Book You’ll Read This Year” that this was going to be crime fiction with more than a dash of slash. What I got was something far more interesting than that, and one of the more thought-provoking books you’ll read this year.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers as I think it’s a book which benefits more than most from knowing as little as possible before reading. So if you want to know nothing more – look away now and come back once you have finished to see if you agree. For everyone else…
If you love your crime/thriller fiction, then there is plenty here for you. Influences such as Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre and Lynda La Plante are in evidence, but also Irvine Welsh. The central character of D.C.I. Jayne Wayne shares much with one of his more memorable creations, Filth‘s D.S. Bruce Robertson. Both have lost sight of what made them join the Force in the first place, and it takes a series of terrible events and the re-emergence of a long forgotten conscience to offer them a shot at redemption. So far – so what’s new? But some of you may have noted that in a shared fictional world, Jayne Wayne would have been Bruce Robertson’s boss. In Wayne’s world, that’s the way it should be.
Jayne Wayne is described in her most recent report as, “..a relic. She is a product of a different time with ingrained sexist views. She shows no willingness to change and no real insight into the fact that her opinions are offensive and outdated.” Into her world comes Detective Inspector Ben Campbell, who is brought in to help investigate the latest death in the small town of Withering where a spectacularly sadistic serial killer is at large. Their relationship is strained from the start. It’s not just that Campbell is young and ambitious, he is a man – and for Wayne that immediately makes his opinions second-rate at best.
Nailing Jess takes a none-more patriarchal world and makes it matriarchal. This is not just relating to the police-force, but all of history, society, religion and all other philosophies. This means language, social expectations, cultural indicators – everything which you expect to be gendered, is subverted. This takes a while to get used to, which tells not only how thoroughly Scully has committed to her central premise, but how we as readers are used to the language and signifiers of our cultural norms.
Going back to Lynda La Plante, Jayne Tennison in Prime Suspect stood out because it was so unusual to have a female in charge. Scully examines all the reasons for this, and throws them in your face. This is not a novel about gender equality or neutrality, at least not in the world Scully has created. Instead she ramps up the sexism, bigotry and misandry to 11 while all the time making what occurs quite believable (the police and thieves in Nailing Jess are more Sweeney and Life On Mars than Law & Order), and in doing so she highlights just how ludicrous those attitudes are, but also how deeply ingrained.
Gender role reversal is not new in fiction, although it is more often found in science fiction which is telling in itself. Scully takes a far more recognisable world and this makes her points more forcefully than may otherwise have been the case. But what is most impressive is the thoroughness that Scully has taken in creating this world. Names, actions, beliefs and even items of clothing are carefully considered and renamed to fit. It is not always entirely successful. Changing the gender of ‘real’ popular singers and other famous names takes the reader too far out of the fictional world that Scully has worked so hard to create, but such things are minor quibbles.
In fact Scully’s command of the language is the most impressive aspect of the novel. If you put Nailing Jess down for any length of time it takes a while to get back into it which is both fascinating and disturbing. You have to readjust your thinking with each reading. One of the things I want from a writer is for them to deal with big ideas, and Triona Scully has done that without losing the plot of a turn-the-page thriller which is gloriously filthy and laugh-out-loud funny, and which definitely delivers on the promise of that cover strapline. It may just well be “The Most Shocking Book You’ll Read This Year”, but maybe not for the reasons you initially suspect.