It’s always a deserted warehouse. Over the years I must have visited more of them than your average movie gangster. Sometimes they are the elephant’s graveyard of boomtime optimism, other times the faded corners of old Dublin. Today’s was a relic of 19th century industry, all small basement rooms, crumbling masonry and pigeon droppings. The perfect place to discuss a murder – that’s why movie gangsters spend so much time hanging out in them. That’s why I was there on a rainy Monday afternoon in a Dublin summer.
There always seems to be someone making a true crime show for Irish television. It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for death and disaster. That’s nothing new of course. Thomas de Quincey turned a satirical eye on the aesthetic appeal of murder in 1827, although he was quite seriously disturbed by the public’s fascination with the crime. George Orwell wrote with more affection on The Decline in the English Murder in 1946. Why should the 21st Century be any different? So around this time of year – ready for scheduling when the nights start drawing in and the time for stories round the fire comes round again, the filming starts. For all our social networked world we haven’t changed so very much. I’ve written on so many cases over the years that I often get the call. If the murder came before the courts between 2007 and 2010 I was probably there and there’s a good chance I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. My words have become part of the record, that first draft of history that journalism provides.
That might sound a little pompous but I certainly don’t mean it that way. That “first draft of history” phrase is one that often runs through my mind as I research 19th century newspapers and I’m so conscious of the fact that the court reports I read there were written by people like me. Just as in modern Ireland it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of a transcript of a trial if you’re simply an observer or wish to tell the story of the case, so the official documentation of so many 19th century trials has been lost. Just as now what I have written and my journalistic colleagues continue to write, fills in the gaps in appeal judgements and provides the colour that gets lost as the public recollection fades, so the 19th century reports breath life into long forgotten cases that would have been forgotten decades ago.
Of course, the cases that generate the most newsprint are the ones that really capture the public imagination. The ones that get talked about in coffee breaks with co-workers, in the pub with friends, on doorsteps with neighbours. There comes a point when they blend into folk memory, become part of social history, inform a generation. Between 2006 and 2008 there seemed to be a mania for murder but that was simply the number of cases appearing before the court. After the press bonanza that was Joe O’Reilly the editors were always looking for the next big case and every month or so there seemed to be a new contender. It’s these cases that are the ones often revisited in warehouses on summer afternoons. Because if you’re going to talk about murder it should be in a suitable desolate setting. Odd perhaps, since the cases we remember are the ones that usually happen in comfortable suburbia with fitted carpets and mod cons. But it’s usually a warehouse, lit atmospherically even if the sun is shining. Perhaps we need that desolate setting to tell these tales. Would a comfortable setting, a living room or kitchen like so many actual murder scenes, be too real, too close.
We can only enjoy murder if it is at that remove. We don’t want to be confronted by the actual death of a person. We want to be told a story, a grim story perhaps, but one that has been told huddled around the fire since lions still had sabre teeth and deer were much, much bigger. If conflict is at the heart of any good story then murder is the perfect story if only we can come to terms with the blood of it, remove the smell of death. I’ve noticed that when I say I’ve written true crime, in some company, the reaction is dismissive, but if I mention historical true crime, or historical fiction the reception is far warmer. I’ve researched the cases as thoroughly, the details of the story might be echoes of each other but one subject has distance and the other doesn’t and that distance is increased as soon as I’m making it up. Because obviously it’s far healthier to be able to imagine the details of a perfect murder rather than simply recount someone else’s actions…
So that’s why I spent this afternoon in a disused warehouse. I was talking murder – just as I’ve often done in the past. It’s a bit of a culture shift talking about recent cases again but I’m sure some day when I’m talking about my 19th century murders I’ll end up doing it in another disused warehouse. It’s the obligatory setting. The expected scene. It wouldn’t be quite the same any other way. As for this afternoon’s effort I’ll give more detail when I have it.