Nailing Jess: A Book Review
I’m not usually a crime reader, nor do I go in for thrillers much but I love feminist fiction and will read anything with a good plot and Nailing Jess has both.
Triona Scully offers what I imagine are the usual twists, turns and suspense for crime fiction but with a difference: the gender roles in the novel have been turned on their head. So the usual overweight, alcoholic, chain-smoking, disheveled and rebellious lead detective, is in fact a woman and her conscientious, responsible sidekick, juggling police responsibilities with care of three children, is a man. And this is only the beginning.
Nailing Jess is a world in which women make the decisions, hold positions of power and influence, they are the movers and shakers, the entrepreneurs and pimps, they are the ones who eschew commitment, who regularly walk out on their families, they engage casual sexual harassment and belittlement of women, and the perpetrators of brutal and dehumanising acts of violence.
The men on the other hand are the house-husbands, the stay at home or single dad’s, the ones who have to choose between career or children, or those who attempt to juggle both, the ones who wear make-up, debilitating footwear and uncomfortable underwear, the ones who wear mini skirts to show off their waxed legs, the sex objects, the beaten, abused or abandoned husbands, the exploited, the prostitutes and the victims of brutal acts of violence.
This role reversal is flawlessly crafted from page one. It was at times jarring to read sexist and violent words flowing from the mouths of the female characters and confusing to see the men adopting passive or submissive attitudes to their female superiors. I often had to remind myself what gender each character was because I have become so accustomed to expecting casual violence from men and complicity or submission from women in popular culture, not the other way round.
In this painstaking gender construction/deconstruction the plot, a serial killer in rural England who murders prostitutes and runaways and leaves the crime scene with no DNA but littered with religious symbolism, almost seems secondary. There are, however, enough suspense, mystery and plot twists to keep even the most skeptical reader entertained.
Skully, in her role reversal, highlights the brutality of gender based violence, which has become so normalised and common place we are hardly shocked by it anymore. CSI, Law and Order SUV and your standard Hollywood blood bath from SAW to Hostel, all fixate on male violence acted out against female victims who rarely have any agency. The entertainment industry profits off this fixation. When it is women, inflicting this violence on men, we are forced to see sexual violence and torture for what they really are: abominations. Skully also sneaks in some good old “meninist” discourse, which I doubt would have made it into a standard crime novel.
Genre fiction is going through somewhat of revival lately thanks to feminist writers who have been using sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction to imagine worlds in which patriarchy is taken to its absolute extreme (The Handmaid’s Tale) or in which women are transforming their reality and questioning gender and sexual norms and taboos such as Fledgling by Octavia Butler which turns the vampire genre on its head. Nailing Jess is a great first effort at questioning and transforming the notoriously misogynistic genre of crime writing.
Irish born Triona lives in Edinburgh with her son Mikey. Nailing Jess is her debut novel. Triona blogs at trionascully.com