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Accessory after the Fact

Can a work of true crime condemn its own genre?

A Thread of Violence by Mark O’Connell. Doubleday, 304 pages. 2023.

True crime—once a disreputable genre, now an acceptable topic for polite dinner table conversation—has long been an Anglo-American form, drawing its lineage from sensationalist British pamphlets and macabre crime journalism in the penny press. In the United States, the specter at the center of these stories has often been the anonymous outsider, invisible in a continent-sized country of lonely highways and rest stops that glow with neon menace. Or perhaps they are the bourgeois wife killer, the one who insists on their own innocence through a long, lurid trial, perfect for dramatization in a ten-part miniseries.

Ireland seems at first resistant to these kinds of tropes. It is a small country where true anonymity is difficult, if not impossible, and in the twentieth century, violence on the island tended to have an institutional or paramilitary flavor. In the words of Thomas De Quincey, “tithes, politics, something wrong in principle, vitiate every Irish murder.” As Patrick Radden Keefe’s seriously flawed mega-bestseller Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland demonstrates, even the Troubles can be transformed for the true crime market. But the events at the center of Mark O’Connell’s new book, A Thread of Violence, are something else entirely—something exceedingly rare in 1980s Ireland: random homicides. The book marks a major departure for O’Connell, who is known for his well-received To Be a Machine and Notes from an Apocalypse, which tackled Silicon Valley transhumanist fantasies and our own millenarian fears, respectively. In A Thread of Violence, he turns from the future to the past and from the global to the local, examining a bizarre pair of murders from his childhood.

A Thread of Violence is written less in the style of literary true crime classics like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song than in their shadow.

The facts of the Macarthur killings are well-known in Ireland, having been told and retold in popular history and fiction. The gist: two shocking, seemingly arbitrary murders occur in the span of a few days. A national manhunt ends in the most improbable of places: the apartment of the sitting attorney general, who has been unknowingly sheltering the killer, an eccentric, apparently intelligent aristocrat by the name of Malcolm Macarthur. The fallout almost topples the government, even though the connection between the two men is glancing, coincidental. The case has recently been the subject of not one but two different podcasts from the BBC and the Irish Times, the latter of which was made into a book, The Murderer and the Taoiseach, which came out in May. O’Connell’s approach is to go beyond the grim details of the case and their political repercussions and try to understand why the killings happened in the first place.

For this, O’Connell went to the source, conducting a series of personal interviews with Macarthur, now aged, released from prison, and living alone in a small, dark apartment. These meetings form the spine of the book, and O’Connell wrestles with them throughout: their slipperiness, their unreliability, their disquieting moral character. Interviewing killers has a long and troubled history, from Gary Gilmore to Jeffrey MacDonald. A Thread of Violence is written less in the style of literary true crime classics like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song than in their shadow. O’Connell sets out to tell the story differently, finally probing that “sullen and persistent silence” that lurks at its heart.

This isn’t O’Connell’s first reckoning with Macarthur. He wrote his PhD thesis on the Irish novelist John Banville, who in 1989 published The Book of Evidence, an acclaimed rendering of the Macarthur murders in fiction. The Book of Evidence appears and reappears in A Thread of Violence, an uncanny double that has occasionally strayed into the real world. While writing, Banville took a detail about expensive bottled water from a news report and carefully edited it for fiction, but the report was wrong itself, and by employing creative license, The Book of Evidence accidentally reproduced reality. Macarthur bears an almost familial resemblance to Banville and even turned up at one of his literary events after being released from prison. In A Thread of Violence, the killer complains at one point about a characterization by a journalist that turns out to have never happened, except in the pages of Banville’s novel. A theme that O’Connell returns to repeatedly is how the murders seem almost novel-like already—and, by extension, the dangers of their excessive narrativization.

A Thread of Violence is divided into five parts: O’Connell’s process of finding Macarthur and convincing him to cooperate; Macarthur’s childhood and the lead-up to the murders; the murders themselves; the immediate aftermath; and finally, the remembering and retelling of the murders in the decades since they occurred. By bracketing the story within a metatextual frame, O’Connell tries to subvert the normal course of the true crime narrative and the sickly, prurient feelings it evokes.

The explosion of true crime in recent years has led to a justified backlash highlighting the reactionary nature of much of the genre, which encourages women in particular to view every space and every interaction with the expectation of violence, and often celebrates the police and the criminal justice system uncritically. Defenders of true crime argue that its purpose is to inform the public, or to warn them of the dangers of modern life. The hosts of My Favorite Murder, for their part, have spoken of how the genre provides satisfaction by confirming that “the world wasn’t as great as Happy Days or Mr. Belvedere made it out to be.” More likely, the attraction is the vicarious thrill that comes from hearing of the most heinous acts and thinking, I’m glad that isn’t me. “[T]rue crime,” Emma Berquist, a survivor of random violence herself, writes, “has rotted our brains.”

Modern forms of true crime aren’t just cynical entertainments: they also suffer from a form of epistemological hubris, reassuring us that though the crimes they document are unspeakable, they are, in the final accounting, explicable. And if they are explicable, it follows that they are avoidable. O’Connell admits that he set out to cover the Macarthur murders with a similar expectation, that he could “know the truth . . . that had haunted [him] for so many years.” What he finds instead is a series of half-truths and evasions, threads that do not connect, and explanations that fail to convince. Every plausible theory of causation runs up against the sheer bizarreness of the chain of events. Nothing makes sense.

This applies, above all, to the murderer himself, who takes pains to emphasize that while he may have committed terrible violence, he is not himself a violent person. Macarthur, who might have been described in his day as being from a “good” family, never uses bad language, abhors impoliteness, and insists that he is “not a psychopath” but rather a person with “a full complement of healthy emotions”—indeed someone with “a high likeability factor” who is “sympathetic and empathetic.” This apparently genuine fastidiousness frequently leads to absurdity, such as his insistence that he abhors sexism and misogyny, despite brutally bludgeoning Bridie Gargan, a female nurse, to death.

Before the murders, Macarthur seemed to conform to a readily recognizable type in society: that of the “harmless eccentric.” In addition to faintly suggesting the existence of a harmful eccentric, this formulation has always carried class connotations. A poor person with strange habits is almost immediately made the subject of state repression, especially in a society with as much coercive confinement as mid-century Ireland. A wealthy person, on the other hand, can live an entire lifetime without their peccadillos being subject to reprisal. For decades, Macarthur belonged to the latter category, the only son of an aristocratic family with significant, though dwindling, wealth. It was this decline in fortunes, and the fear of moving from one class position to another, that catalyzed the chain of events documented in A Thread of Violence.

O’Connell outlines how money, or the lack of it, both provided the initial impulse for murder and pervaded the wider structures in which it could be excused. At the time of the killings, Macarthur’s finances were becoming more desperate by the day. He had a partner and child to support, but simply getting a job was, by his account, totally out of the question. He was possessed of a strange ideology, a “commitment to a kind of pure freedom, a life of the mind untethered to any financial or career imperatives”—otherwise known as inherited wealth. Having lived this kind of life for decades, he was willing to take the freedom and life of others to extend it. Irish aristocrats of high reputation but declining means abound in Irish literature: think of Brian Friel’s Aristocrats or the novels of Elizabeth Bowen. But in Macarthur’s crimes, one sees that beneath the wistful laments of the late landed gentry for golden days past lurks a black fury that the country should be in the hands of peasants and shopkeepers, rather than its rightful owners. The conclusion O’Connell seems to reach is that aristocratic morality is deeply alien, concerned with keeping up appearances at any human cost.

In the face of his financial plight, Macarthur cooked up an absurd and unworkable plan to rob an Irish bank, taking inspiration from a series of such heists carried out by Republican paramilitaries. A robbery required a gun and a car, which he would obtain by murdering their owners. It was a ludicrous fantasy, the plan of an autodidact with no common sense but an unshakeable belief in his own intelligence, a man who once declared that he was going to “make [his] mark on Western Europe.” He employed risible disguises and carried a modified crossbow, among various other extraneous or useless props. But as O’Connell observes, when it came to Macarthur, there is no clear boundary between “the ridiculous and the sinister.” His silliness exists easily alongside his danger.

Aristocratic morality is deeply alien, concerned with keeping up appearances at any human cost.

Over the course of his interviews with Macarthur, O’Connell gradually begins to realize that beneath his unsettling calm is a person constantly theorizing the reasons for his moment of transgressive violence. Macarthur has even written a book of his own, of sorts. This “document,” which has never been read by anyone else, looms in the background, a book within a book that could never, and perhaps should never, emerge. But A Thread of Violence has its own ethical tangles to contend with. O’Connell begins to believe that the ease with which he narrativizes real events makes him complicit in them: “Because if Macarthur was a character, and his crimes were a story, then his victims were necessarily characters too, and secondary ones at that. My work, in this way, was permeated with a cold and methodical violence.” At the same time, he makes no attempt at journalistic objectivity. He is open about his own obsessive, almost unseemly interest in the murders, as well as his manipulation of Macarthur’s vanity, intelligence, and loneliness. Just as Macarthur asks himself why he committed these acts, O’Connell starts to wonder why he is writing about them. His creeping authorial dread prompts a similar question for the reader. Why are we picking over these old crimes, trying to understand the unfathomable? In doing so, are we, too, playing into the ghoulish narcissism of a convicted double murderer? O’Connell notes abashedly that the families of the dead have no wish to reopen these questions.

A project like this leaves an author open to accusations of having their cake and eating it too, producing a critique of a form that also indulges in its conventions. But in denying us an epiphanic conclusion, and by exposing the structures (interviews, police reports, previous retellings) beneath his narrative, O’Connell tries to circumvent this problem by performing a sort of reverse citation. Gone is the confident voice of the true crime podcaster, flattening all ambiguity into an orderly narrative. By slowly peeling back the artifice of this genre—the claim to authority, the rush of discovery, the armchair psychoanalysis—he reveals the hollowness at its center. Fittingly, this impressive, compulsive work ends on a note of deep disquiet about its own existence. A Thread of Violence feels like a challenge to the idea of writing such stories at all.