Writer and Author

Category: Death on the Hill (Page 1 of 5)

The Trouble with Jack

Detail-of-Jack-the-Ripper-coverage-from-Illustrated-Police-News-1888

Detail of a contemporary illustration from the Illustrated Police News showing the face of Jack the Ripper as described by witnesses, 1888. Copyright British Newspaper Archive.

Jack the Ripper is a phantom, a bogeyman, a shadow in the night.  At the height of the terror the Illustrated Police News printed this picture, a mere artist’s impression based on the most recent witness statements. We know that someone committed those murders, that police suspected the deaths of five women, killed brutally in a three month window in the Whitechapel area, were killed by the same assailant. They assumed it was a man, they never caught him. “Jack the Ripper” flirted with the press for a while then faded away. He’s become one of our greatest bogeymen, the archetypal killer, a stock character in film, TV and books. There are countless theories about who he was, countless websites. For a man with no face he’s got a hell of a profile.

Then there were the victims. Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly. Very often they don’t even get a name check, they are simply victims one to five, just pieces of the puzzle that is Jack. Their dead faces are familiar, you can find them easily online (I’m not linking to them myself but if you want to find them go ahead).  They give nothing away in those grainy post mortem photographs. Death has brought them a kind of unity, a flat sameness similar perhaps to the way the hardness of their lives would have ground them down in life. These were working class women, whose poverty had dragged them into a precarious existence on the streets. As so many with no other choice they sold their bodies for pennies. These were the women the wealthy would pass by without a glance, unless they wanted to buy. These were the most vulnerable women, the kind that leave no mark on history apart from the odd arrest for soliciting or by meeting an extravagantly grotesque death. There are many like them who died nameless deaths. Take Mary Ann Nichols, whose sad, hopeless life was described by historian Fern Riddell on Twitter last year and in this Storify.

Even today the victim is all too often the missing piece of the puzzle. They existence during the trial of their killer is reduced to mere evidence, a collection of test tubes trying to confirm guilt. All too often the victim is a woman and the killer is a man. I’ve written about it so many times; the families outside the court describing the person they felt was missing from the proceedings. The families of Jean Gilbert and Celine Cawley both felt the need to go to the papers to give them a voice. They had the opportunity. How many women die in Ireland and elsewhere whose murder doesn’t cause headlines, doesn’t sell papers. Certainly in Whitechapel in the 1880s attacks on women were so commonplace that there has always been a debate about cases that could have been connected to the Ripper. As this timeline shows the 1880s were not a good time to be a vulnerable woman. And then, thirty years before, when William Kirwan killed his wife Maria, many of the papers didn’t even bother to get her name right. She often appears in the contemporary press as Louisa and these days she turns up as Sarah, Louisa or Maria or even sometimes Mary. It took a lot of digging to find Maria but you’ll hear her husband talked about on the boat over to Ireland’s Eye to this day.

That’s why the story of London’s Ripper Museum is in such appalling taste. The Evening Standard and several other London papers carried the news that a new museum opening on Cable Street in the East End will not be a celebration of East End women and the suffragette movement as the owners had suggested in their planning application but instead a museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper. At first they claimed that this was the way to humanise the victims but their Facebook page, as it stands this evening, makes no attempt to even pay lip service to anything but the public’s lust for a good murder “Jack the Ripper Museum, situated in a historic Victorian house in the heart of Whitechapel, tells the full story of the Jack the Ripper murders. Step back in time to the London of 1888, the greatest city in the world, where the greatest unsolved crimes of all time took place. As you explore the museum, you will discover everything there is to know about the lives of the victims, the main suspects in the murders, the police investigation and the daily life of those living in the east end of London in 1888. Once you have all the clues, will you be able to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper?”

Now don’t get me wrong. I get why a Jack the Ripper museum would get visitors. I get why it’s a good commercial prospect. I made my living from the public appetite to murder. I’d be a hypocrite if I condemned it outright. But Dark Tourism needs to be respectful – and it certainly needs to be historically accurate. The frontage shown in the newspaper coverage looks more like a Disney Pirates exhibit and, as many of the angry local residents quoted in the Standard piece pointed out, Cable Street wasn’t the site of any Ripper murders. The area has it’s own proud history and that’s what should have been celebrated. What makes the story even worse, or at least adds a particular piquancy to it, is that the man behind the rather dodgy scheme, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, was formerly Google’s head of diversity and inclusion…he told the Standard today “We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.” Because obviously a brutalised life gruesomely cut short is so much more inspiring than say, for instance, Sylvia Pankhurst. Local paper The East London Advertiser says that the planning document submitted by the architects cited the closure of the much lamented Women’s Library in the area that “the “Museum of Women’s History”, as it calls the project, would be “the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history””.

A museum of women’s history would be a great thing. It would be somewhere to teach our children and to educate ourselves. A celebration of murder will not do that. No matter how much detail they give about the women who died. The focus is on the phantom in opera cloak and top hat clutching a doctor’s bag. A cliche who will will teach nothing, inform nothing, provide nothing but cheap thrills and feed base instincts. Judging by the story so far this is a ghoul hunting expedition not a celebration of the resilience of East End women. If they’d done what they said the press they would have got would have been over-whelmingly positive. They would have been championed across the planet as an example of how we are moving forward. Instead the social media carrion crows are circling looking for blood. I wonder if the owners think they’ve made a mistake.

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

That’s what I was told when, as a young journalist, I asked why it was always bigger news when a crime was committed by someone in a white collar job. I never liked that answer. Let’s leave aside the fact that it assumes that anyone from a less privileged position in society doesn’t or can’t know that committing a crime is wrong, I just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Human beings as a species are naturally nosy. Maybe it grew up as a survival strategy, maybe it’s just one of our baser instincts, whatever the reason, there is a slightly sinful enjoyment to be had from peering into someone else’s life. Look at the success of reality television. Social media means we can stalk our nearest and dearest, not to mention people we haven’t seen since school or who we met briefly once long ago, like never before. But for proper Grade-A snooping, with added moral vindication, you really can’t beat the criminal courts.

When you’re reporting a trial there is a checklist you follow to find that perfect case. A perfect case, especially if you are a freelancer, is a story that will get you “above the fold”. A story that will have good enough quotes that they will appear as a “standfirst” in larger type at the top of your piece. A story with a strong enough hook that you’ll get a nice large headline and maybe a picture byline. A story that lends itself to pictures. A trial with a white collar criminal or a murder with a beautiful or heartbreakingly pathetic corpse tends to tick all the boxes. Add a sexual element, in murder at least, and you can guarantee the press benches will be full and it’ll be standing room only in the courtroom.

I’ve written about these kinds of trials for almost half my career. I wrote two books because the public appetite for these cases meant there was a market for them. I earned my living out from knowing which trials would generate the column inches, noting details when a death was announced, keeping an ear out for court dates, having the research ready. A big trial would mean more money, would mean the camaraderie of a large press posse following every move, could even lead to a book deal or a movie deal. A big trial would be a pay out.

But at the same time you tend to see the worst of people during a big trial. The rubber neckers who turn up every day, rubbing their hands with glee at the juicier evidence. The neighbours who’d grab you for the gruesome details. The callous jokes you hear yourself cracking at lunchtime with colleagues. Even though it was how I made my living, even though I shared the interest, the lack of empathy bothered me and became something I didn’t want to feed any more.

When we look at a white collar accused we do so with smugness. They should have known better than to be there, therefore we can freely judge them. They have transgressed, have let the side down – we are absolved from pity.  All too often this condemnation is extended to the victim. If the victim can also be seen to have failed morally in some way, then the way is clear to enjoy the gory details without being hampered by compassion. I can only imagine how the family of Elaine O’Hara are feeling this week as architect Graham Dwyer is on trial for her murder in a trial that is generating daily headlines about bondage and sadomasochism. Reading the headlines it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s on trial. Whatever the verdict at the end of the trial, Elaine O’Hara will be remembered by many because of her supposed sexual preferences rather than because of the facts, such as they are known, of her death.

I’m currently researching middle class crime in the 19th century for an academic paper – looking at the very early days of court reporting. I knew from researching the Ireland’s Eye murder that some things never change when it comes to the kind of trials that make the headlines but it’s fascinating to see how court reporting evolved in the early 19th century. Newspapers have never been free of the commercial need to draw in more readers. They’ve always had to “tickle the public”. There was never a time when sex didn’t sell, even when it couldn’t be mentioned.  The trials that are remembered today, that inspired songs and plays back then – like the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, the famous Red Barn murder of 1827 – would still make headlines. Some things never change.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

Art for art’s sake?

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason - The Training Room

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason

There was a lot of controversy just before Paddy’s Day when the news came out that Eamonn Lillis would be exhibiting two paintings in a public exhibition. The news, coming as it did shortly after the announcement that he had helped to organise a play in Wheatfield Prison that would be viewed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, caused a bit of a debate on whether or not convicted felons should be preening for adulation from behind bars.

When it was reported, after the opening weekend of the exhibition in the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, that one of Lillis’s paintings had been vandalised, with the word “killer” scrawled on the frame, there was a certain amount of righteous clucking. Why should a man who had killed his wife get to show off in public? He was in prison as a punishment for his crime, and certainly shouldn’t be building a portfolio.

It’s taken me a while to get to the exhibition. I hadn’t wanted to comment until I’d seen what was there and I was curious about how the art work would be presented in a venue as iconic as Kilmainham Gaol.  But the sunshine this week was too much of a draw so I wandered across yesterday. I’d gone with certain preconceptions and my own views on the use of a notorious case like Lillis’s to sell the museum but when I got there my qualms were swept away.

While Lillis’s two rather insipid watercolours do greet you as you walk in the door The Crushed Bull exhibition actually has something genuine to offer.  For starters it’s not just the work of one headline grabbing killer, but that of prisoners scattered around the country’s prisons and those who went to two support centres after their release. There’s a range of styles and levels of talent on show but some of the pieces are genuinely arresting and thought provoking. It’s a varied collection. Paintings in a variety of mediums hang above sculptures in clay or stone.  There are mosaics, jewellery (mostly made by the women of the Dochas Prison – where Sharon Collins is serving her time) in all shapes and sizes.

Rabbit By Peter - Wheatfield Prison

Rabbit By Peter – Wheatfield Prison

But even if you didn’t come to the exhibition hoping for a glimpse into the minds of some of the county’s worst, it’s almost impossible to forget that this isn’t an ordinary group show. It’s a point that’s rather clumsily underlined in the first room of the exhibition where the Lillis paintings hang beside a collection with a distinct prison bar motif and the painting of the tabby cat staring intently at a goldfish hangs across the disturbingly surrealist grouping on a small chest of drawers in an empty room. A pair of glowing eyes stare out of the drawer in the painting by Eric B. from Portlaoise Prison (notorious for it’s gangland inmates), who signs his work with a pentacle. On top of the chest of drawers in the painting is a pocket watch, an empty wine bottle, a gun and two severed fingers with red lacquered oval nails.  There’s a clay elephant across from that painting, which is right by the door into the exhibition. It’s wearing glasses and is next to a card proclaiming it The Elephant in the Room, by Anon from the Midlands Prison, home to the most notorious of them all, Joe O’Reilly. One thing that’s certain about this opening grouping is that the elephant is somewhat redundant – this exhibition is wearing it’s credentials firmly pinned to it’s chest.

It’s a shame though. You see, when you turn the corner and enter the exhibition proper, you begin to see a point beyond the voyeuristic.  There’s some real talent here and some genuine insight. Some of the work might be a little to obvious in their influences but the cubist Female Addict No. 2 by Jason, from the rehab centre The Training Unit, makes a real impact. That’s why I used the image at the top of this post.  There are some more aggressive pieces (though none as obvious as Erik with his severed fingers). Here and there there are skull motifs or devils but most of the landscapes are noticeably empty. Some of the most poignant works are from the remand prisoners in Cloverhil Prison, where many wait to be deported. A little girl beams up at an anonymous dad, a group work gives a patchwork of political protest. This isn’t really an insight into the criminal mind, just a glimpse at the attempted rehabilitation of men and women who made mistakes and are now paying for them.

I’ve covered the courts for long enough to see the number of people who’ve entered a life of crime because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice. Time and time again there are people who couldn’t escape from a hopeless existence, who wandered into a life of drink, drugs and violence because they couldn’t see another way. I’m not saying they were right. I’m not saying that those who commit crimes, especially violent ones, shouldn’t pay a price, but I do believe in second chances. If prison art classes or theatrical performances help to encourage people to go in a different direction, show them a better life, then shouldn’t they be applauded rather than condemned? Exhibitions like this one should never be about the freak show, they should be about redemption.

It’s unfortunate that the Crushed Bull was sold with one of the biggest circuses of recent years. Lillis isn’t the kind of person who can really benefit from this kind of initiative. He, like other middle class, headline grabbing criminals, doesn’t need to have his horizons opened – they should already be. People like Lillis threw away lives that many of those they now get to see on a daily basis could only dream of. That might make them attractive to news editors across the board but when it comes down to it, they should have known better. Lillis’s involvement in an initiative like this only muddies the water and distracts from the positive. Instead of talking about whether Lillis is having too much fun in prison the discussion should be about the value of the arts…except that’s a subject that doesn’t tend to make headlines in quite the same way.

The Flow of the Narrative

I was watching The Last Seduction with the Husband last night. It’s one of my favourite films.  Afterwards we were jokingly wondering if this might have been the film that gave Sharon Collins the idea for her ill-judged bit of online retail.  It’s doubtful. The similarities between fact and fiction are slim, to say the least, but it’s a joke we always make. After all, if Sharon had simply been one of my characters then she probably would have been influenced by one of my favourite films, I could have made her influenced by anything I wanted.

It might seem like an obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction but it’s one that it’s all too easy to blur in the writing. Writing a book is completely different from writing a piece for a newspaper or a post for this blog about the trial while it’s going on. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look at how the story flows, to find the rhythm at it’s heart. It doesn’t feel any different telling a true story or making one up once I get down to writing. The research and planning stages might be different but once the story starts to pick up speed it’s always a question of following the narrative flow. It’s the same with characters. Whether I’m replaying in memory words and actions I know happened, that have been proved in front of a court of law, or allowing the characters to block out their own movements in the theatre of my imagination, it all comes out much the same.

I’ve remarked here before about how strange it feels seeing “characters” in the flesh when a case comes back to court. Something happens when you’ve spent weeks in front of the screen with a subject. In a way it becomes part of you, as do the dramatis personae.  You can get rather possessive. With recent cases the problem’s academic. They’re live stories that will continue to develop outside the scope of my book. But today I’m more concerned with the flow of the story itself.

Why does it seem amusing that Sharon Collins might have been influenced by The Last Seduction? Because it works with the story. It underlines her mixed attempts to be a real life femme fatale by contrasting with a great fictional example.  When I was writing Devil in the Red Dress I used to listen to the Last Seduction soundtrack (a great noirish jazz affair) and my movie viewing tended to revolve around Bogart and Bacall or the Coen Brothers. While I couldn’t do anything with the facts of the case or the words of the witnesses, the underlying beat to that one was most definitely Hollywood Noir with a rather comic edge.

I’m not one of those writers who has to work in silence. I’ve been a journalist for too long for surrounding babble to worry me that much but given the choice I’d rather have my choice of music than Sky News and radio bulletins. So far each book has had it’s own mp3 playlist on my laptop. Devil was smoky jazz, Death on the Hill was written to an accompaniment of mainly French pop and this new one appears to be insisting on passionate instrumentals of Irish or Russian origin. When I was working on my novel I had a different playlist for each character – it helped to keep them solid while I was still working them out.  Whatever it’s content though the playlists all serve the same purpose. They’re a shortcut to the narrative flow. A way of getting to where I need to go.

At the moment, because I’m at an early stage of writing, I’m still feeling for that rhythm but I know it’s there. I think that narrative flows through life like an underground stream. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, based on the facts before us and our knowledge of our fellow man. It’s that same knowledge that can lead a jury to a verdict or make a novel feel like it isn’t working. It’s that gut feeling that creates archetypes and truisms.  There’s a rhythm that undercuts everything and any story has to fall into step or at least be damn good at syncopation.  I’m not talking about the simple stuff that we’d always like to be true – boy gets girl, good always triumphs and evil gets it’s just deserts. It’s just real life. They’re basic rules that always affect the story no matter what you write – true crime or crime fiction, chick lit or fantasy.

At the moment I’m working on something where hearing that rhythm feels more important than ever. I don’t have the benefit of observing my characters and I can’t make them up. If I get them wrong I’m doing a disservice to a story that has, after all, already unfolded.  It’s rather different from anything I’ve ever done.  But I think I’ve found the melody at last, enough for me to follow until the narrative flow catches me and the story takes hold.

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

Father against Daughter

A year ago I wrote about the fact that Celine Cawley’s brother and sister, on behalf of the her daughter have taken a case against Eamonn Lillis for his part of his wife’s estate.  The case was adjourned back in November but it’s back in the news again as it has emerged that the court has agreed to Lillis’s daughter becoming part of the proceedings against her father.

18-year-old Georgia Lillis has said that she wants to address comments of her father’s in his submission fighting the case. 

Eamonn Lillis has argued that he should keep his share in the couple’s three houses as he will have nothing when he leaves prison.  He has also suggested that his daughter, who has already inherited her mother’s half of the properties, will get his half when he dies in normal succession. He has said that there is still a relationship between him and his daughter.

Once again, it’s impossible not to feel deeply sorry for his young daughter. This is the first time I’ve named her in print.  It was legally barred until she reached the age of 18, as the child of someone accused of a serious crime. Once the clock chimes midnight on the eve of her 18th birthday though that protection is removed.

It seems an arbitrary moment to turn a child into an adult but for Georgia Lillis that moment probably came a lot earlier.  When all this began. She said, during her father’s trial, that she found it difficult to forgive her father for lying about her mother’s death but during the week he had between verdict and sentence they spent the time at the family home together. It’s hard to comprehend how a relationship can survive such a horrific event but as an only child who can blame her for clinging to the only parent she has left.

That relationship was in the spotlight during the trial.  It will be again when the civil case is heard in the new court year.   It’s never good when family relationships end up picked over in the courts but when the full glare of the media spotlight is pointed at them what then?

By all accounts Georgia has a lot of support from her mother’s family but this will be the second time she has faced lawyers representing her father in court. She won’t be the first child to face a parent in court and she certainly won’t be the last but it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The case has been adjourned till the end of the summer court term but there won’t be any movement on it until after the summer recess.  This is a story that will keep running.

Sad news…

I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living.  When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words.  I still have one of those little books.  It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover.  I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.

I had started to write my first novel when I was 11.  I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out.  There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters!  Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me.  Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.

I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about.  I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day. 

Back in 2008 my first book was published.  A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer.  Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations.  Devil in the Red Dress  is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen.  But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author.  I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.

I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again.  I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true.  The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream.  I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life.  I decided to try and get an agent.  That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.

I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years.  She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching.  I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work.  When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel.  It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon.  After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.

Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future.  She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism.  I’ve never had any illusions about this business.  I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am.  I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.

Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill.  I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.

Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again.  Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support.  I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book.  I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita.  She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer.  I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am.  She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming. 

She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it.  But instead there was a bomb shell.  After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent.  I don’t blame her in the slightest.  I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset.  Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally.  I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other.  I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way.  Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.  The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone.  It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment.  Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable.  I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life.  I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.

A Change of Pace

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the National Library recently.  It’s a completely different place to work to the Criminal Courts of Justice and the work I’ve been doing has been different too.  The courts are all about immediacy, making sure you get the quotes right and into a cohesive article that’ll read fresh when people flick through the paper over their breakfasts.  In the library I’m dealing with old, dry facts, digging through brittle pages to find that glint of a story.  It’s proper old fashioned research and I’m loving it.

The National Library itself is a wonderful place to work. Quite apart from the fact it’s an incredible resource with a dedicated and helpful staff, it’s also one of the most stunning buildings in the country.  Coming into work every day and going through the iron gate, climbing the steps to the colonnade that surround the entrance, walking across the wonderful mosaic floor.  Even the toilets are like something out of a more civilised, genteel time.  Have I mentioned that I’m loving the work?

But I’m not giving up on my genre in the least.  I’ll be back down to the courts in a few weeks, business as usual, and later this week I’m going to be taking part in a panel on True Crime as part of the Dublin Book Festival.  It’s on Thursday March 3rd at the lovely Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar and should be a good night – it’s also free, so if you’re in Dublin, come along.  It should be a good night. 

It’ll be great to talk about True Crime with my colleagues.  It’s a fascinating genre, strong stories, strong emotions, all the ingredients to make a compelling story.  It’s also one of those genres that people tend to have strong opinions about. Some people love reading the stories I tell, other people don’t like me digging into other people’s pain.  I’m fascinated by the different perceptions of what I do, just as I’m fascinated by the trials I cover.  Some people think it’s seedy, some think there’s a kind of glamour there…personally I tread the middle ground. The courts are too starchily academic to be one hundred per cent seedy, but it’s hardly glamorous either.  I tell people’s stories, that’s all.  I try to tell them as vividly and compellingly because I’m not a lawyer or a garda, I’m a writer and telling stories is what I do.  But it all makes for a lively discussion so roll on Thursday, it should be fun.

Responsible Parenting?

Almost two years ago Eamonn Lillis killed his wife.  He hit her over the head with a brick and then ran upstairs to fake a robbery to explain her wounds, while his wife, former model Celine Cawley lay dying on the frozen decking outside the kitchen.

He would later say in court, the highest profile murder trial this year, that he had acted like this to protect his daughter.  He didn’t know his wife was so gravely injured, he said, and after a marital row had turned to violence both their first thoughts were for their daughter.  They wanted to explain the marks from the fight on both their faces and so jointly decided to concoct a fictitious burglar.

Whatever went on that frosty morning just before Christmas 2008 we will never know for certain.  We only have the word of the man now serving a six year sentence for killing his wife, who clung to the story of the masked bandit for far longer than good sense would dictate.

Now Lillis’s parenting is hitting the headlines again.  It’s the latest stage in a an action started back in June by Celine’s brother and sister, Chris and Susanna Cawley.  Under Irish law Lillis is not allowed to profit from killing his wife so loses his right to inherit her share of any jointly owned property.  The Cawley’s are trying to ensure that he loses the right of his own share in that property, with the whole lot reverting to the couple’s daughter when she turns 18 later this month.

My heart goes out to that girl.  This should be an exciting time for her, a milestone. But instead she has to watch her relationship with her only surviving parent raked over by the media and the general public.

This week the Cawley case took another step forward and was met by Lillis’s rebuttal.  Chris and Susanna Cawley want Lillis declared legally dead so that his half of any shared assets will go directly to his daughter.  But Lillis is fighting back.  In an affidavit sent from prison he said he had discussed with his daughter what would happen when he got out of prison and that he had no intention of selling the family home of Rowan Hill, on Windgap Road in Howth. 

“However the intention of my wife and I in placing the property in joint names as a joint tenancy was that our daughter would succeed to the property on the death of both of her parents. This is what I believe should happen.”

He added that she had been visiting him in prison and he intended to continue providing for her.  “I want to return to the family home as her parent not as a sort of tenant at will or a co-owner sharing a jointly owned property with her.”

Providing for his daughter would be difficult he noted, since his manslaughter conviction rendered him virtually unemployable.  "Many of my friends and acquaintances have distanced themselves from me. My reputation has been destroyed. My livelihood has been destroyed."

Because of this, he explained, he would also need the rental income from another house the couple had jointly owned in Sutton.  Which, when added to half the proceeds from the sale of Toytown Films, the production company set up by Celine, should provide a sufficient income to allow him to keep parenting in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

Lillis insisted that losing his assets would be a punishment too far and that he had suffered enough.  “Prison is a very difficult and alien world for me. However the greatest punishment is the geographical distance between myself and my daughter and the diminution in our relationship.”

It’s hard not to read Lillis’s words fighting for his assets without wondering whether his concern is for his daughter or his lifestyle.  There was no indication during the trial that he and his wife were anything other than devoted parents to their only child.  But she would be able to provide for herself once she hits 18.  She already has her mother’s half of everything.  She also has a very loving family behind her who will stop at nothing to protect her interests.  Losing your money, when it’s taken away from you, doesn’t make you a bad parent, but this seems to be what label-conscious Lillis feels.

Anyway, the case is still ongoing.  There’s been a three week adjournment but it will be back in the headlines before long. This is one story that will never really go away, sadly for all concerned.

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