A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder, by Mark O’Connell

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The Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s books are particularly notable for his increasingly personal take on the subjects he is investigating. In his 2018 Wellcome Prize winner debut, To Be a Machine, he looked at the world of transhumanism, exploring those who would meld with machines, ways to live longer, and futurology/AI, with profound empathy and respect. In 2020’s Notes From An Apocalypse, the end of the world was his main topic, and he explored preppers, bunkers, billionaires’ enclaves, the post-apocalypse world of Chernobyl tourism, all the while worrying about his young son’s future.

For his third book, his investigation into a double murder in 1982, that caused a huge scandal in Ireland, was inspired by O’Connell’s PhD on the work of John Banville, whose Booker-shortlisted novel The Book of Evidence was itself inspired by this case. A loose family connection to the killer’s capture added to his ongoing fascination. Malcolm Macarthur was staying in his friend’s flat in the same block that O’Connell’s grandparents lived in; the flat was owned by the Irish attorney general. Luckily Patrick Connolly wasn’t there when the police came to call, but the ensuing scandal nearly brought down Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s government!

Malcom Macarthur was a real character. From a rich family, he dressed as an upper-class country gent in tweeds and a bow tie or cravat. He’d never had to work, preferring to spend his time studying and spouting discourse on wide-ranging intellectual pursuits. Eventually his money ran out though, and he hatched a plan to rob a post office. He arranged to visit a farmer who was selling a shotgun, but needed transport to get there – so he hijacked Bridie Gargan’s car – injuring her so badly she died. Then when he got to the farm, not having the IR£1000 asking price, he shot and killed Donal Dunne when handed the gun to test it. Conor Cruise O’Brien coined the term ‘GUBU’ from a quote by the Taoiseach to describe the murders: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented, and that is how they have come to be known in Irish history, although O’Connell doesn’t make much of this in the book.

Macarthur was freed in 2012, and proceeded to live a quiet life in Dublin, taking long walks, and refusing to talk to the media about what happened, although he did like going to literary events, seriously spooking John Banville at one (I must revisit The Book of Evidence). Thus not being approachable by normal means and with Dublin in lockdown, it was difficult for O’Connell to find the opportunity to introduce himself as an author wanting to write a book about him and the case, not as a journalist seeking sensation. After much circling around each other, Macarthur agreed to talk to him, but not about the murders themselves.

As odd as it sounds, it was important to Macarthur not to be seen as a violent man. For him, the events of 1982 were an aberration, a dark and bloody stain on the otherwise pristine surface of his life. His “episode,” as he called it.

As you may expect, the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee is one of the most fascinating aspects of this book, and is something that O’Connell acknowledges gives him problems. At one stage, he kept thinking back to Banville’s protagonist, and also Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. His friend Katie puts him right:

“What I mean,” she said, “is that you need to stop thinking of him as a character. He’s not a character. He’s a real person. He’s a man who did terrible things.” […]

[…] “what I am saying is that this is about power. You’re talking right now as though you have all the power, in the way that you would if he was in fact just a character you had created. Right now, he thinks he’s the one in a position of power, because he’s telling you his story. He’s deciding how much of it he’s going to let you have. …”

O’Connell repeatedly returns to these moral questions and his relationship with Macarthur throughout the book, all the while delving into the man’s psyche as much as he is allowed to. He considers how this is affecting his own life too.

I wanted to know that he had truly suffered for what he’d done. After the better part of a year of such conversations, I began to wonder whether such a moment would ever come.

O’Connell’s book is much more than just an account of a true crime, having that personal narrative alongside Macarthur’s, as in his previous books, but more to the forefront here. O’Connell’s own curiosity and obsessive interest in the story makes for a compulsive account; one told with a certain degree of humour too, although never at the expense of Macarthur’s victims. The writing is reflective, questioning and always elegantly crafted, and the accompanying notes lay out details of their conversations, along with a bibliography.

O’Connell is a master of non-fiction narrative, and I shall look forward with immense pleasure to reading whatever he chooses to write about next.

Annabel is a Co-founder of Shiny, and one of its editors.

Mark O’Connell, A Thread of Violence (Granta, 2023). 978-1783787708, 304 pp., hardback.

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