Logical madness: Malcolm Macarthur in 1983. Image: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

About as good as true crime gets

A book about the Irish killer Malcolm Macarthur is a paragon of its genre—precisely because it recognises the limitations of that genre
July 19, 2023
A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder
Mark O'Connell (RRP: £16.99)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

When, in autumn 2020, the journalist and writer Mark O’Connell first visits the Dublin apartment of Malcolm Macarthur—the socialite who served 30 years in prison for the murder of two strangers in 1982—he’s distracted by the fact that both the television and a long, low bookshelf are entirely wrapped in black plastic bin liners. O’Connell asks Macarthur what the deal is. It’s the most efficient way to keep the TV and his books dust-free, Macarthur explains. Surely it would be more straightforward just to dust the room, O’Connell suggests. “I hadn’t realised your line of questioning would be so forensic,” Macarthur replies, entirely without irony.

If you’re familiar with the work of the late American critic Janet Malcolm, New Yorker staff writer and the author of some of the most coolly polished yet penetrating interviews of the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s impossible to read O’Connell’s description of this encounter without hearing echoes of Malcolm’s writing. She was always observer as much as she was listener, paying keen attention to what her interview subjects were doing, and how they were doing it. Take her aside about Ingrid Sischy’s “inefficient” manner of chopping tomatoes in her 1986 profile of the then twentysomething editor of Artforum magazine, who was shaking up the New York art scene. Or her inclusion, in her profile of Eileen Fisher, of the detail about the “bad” cat—who fought with Fisher’s other cats and peed on the carpet—whom the famous fashion designer “expelled” from her house despite the freezing weather outside. 

In the same way that Malcolm grasps that Sischy’s culinary performance throws light on her entire approach to life, or that Fisher’s treatment of her cats says more about how she runs her company than all her “contorted” business-speak, so too does O’Connell’s insight into Macarthur’s dust-management procedures give him—and us—a framework to better read his subject. “When I got to know Macarthur a little better,” he writes, “this technique of his seemed to me to be evidence of his peculiar approach to the solving of problems, which was often so logical as to be almost entirely irrational.”

Even though Macarthur’s crime spree was so irrational that it inspired its own acronym—“GUBU”, paraphrased from Ireland’s then Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s description of it as “grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented”—its origins were logical to the point of banality. Macarthur needed money. Unlike most of us, though, he wasn’t prepared to actually earn it. Raised amongst wealth and privilege, he considered himself a man of leisure; his only job being the pursuit of the life of the mind. But by 1982, with a partner—Brenda Little—and a young son to support, his inheritance was dwindling. Leaving his family on holiday in Tenerife, he returned home to Dublin with a vague plan to rob a bank. For this he required two things: a gun and a getaway car, and it was in the course of acquiring these that Macarthur murdered his two victims. 

Catching a glimpse: Macarthur, head covered, leaving his first court appearance for the murder of Bridie Gargan © Independent News and Media / Getty Images Catching a glimpse: Macarthur, head covered, leaving his first court appearance for the murder of Bridie Gargan © Independent News and Media / Getty Images

The first was a 27-year-old nurse named Bridie Gargan, whose skull Macarthur repeatedly bludgeoned with a hammer while hijacking her car in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. She died of her injuries shortly after in hospital. Macarthur committed the second murder three days later, shooting Donal Dunne, a farmer who had agreed to sell him a shotgun, in the face with his own weapon. 

The sheer brutality of these attacks remains horrifying. But what happened next catapulted the case into the realm of something akin to farce. On the run after the subsequent attempted armed robbery of an old acquaintance, Macarthur got in touch with a good friend of Brenda’s, one Patrick Connolly, who—knowing nothing of Macarthur’s crimes—invited him to stay in his oceanside apartment for as long as he was in town. As unbelievable as it sounds, Connolly was Ireland’s attorney general, which meant that while a frenzied manhunt was under way across the city, the highest legal officer in the land was unknowingly hosting the hunted party; even chauffeuring him about town by means of his own police escort. Although cleared of aiding and abetting, Connolly was eventually forced to resign—and he nearly took the government down with him. 

Too young to have been aware of the case or the consequent scandal at the time, O’Connell—a long-time resident of Dublin—has nevertheless felt haunted by the story throughout his life. His grandparents lived in the same apartment block as Connolly, and O’Connell wrote his PhD on the works of the Irish writer John Banville, whose 1989 novel The Book of Evidence was inspired by Macarthur and his crimes. Thus, when he spies Macarthur on the streets of Dublin between Covid lockdowns, he asks if he can interview him. Somewhat surprisingly, Macarthur agrees.

The sheer brutality of these attacks remains horrifying. But what happened next catapulted the case into the realm of something akin to farce

One of the many fascinating and altogether bizarre details about the case is that there was technically no trial. Macarthur’s lawyers ruled out an insanity defence, which meant he was effectively forced to plead guilty. He was given life for the murder of Gargan without any evidence being heard in court. We might be tempted to think of A Thread of Violence as filling in the absence left by this missing testimony, but, as O’Connell illustrates, this would be grievously oversimplifying the murky badlands in which true crime writing resides. And, as any reader picking up on those early echoes of Janet Malcolm will realise, A Thread of Violence is the kind of book that’s as much an interrogation of the genre to which it belongs as it is a consummate example of the intellectual heights to which that genre can ascend. 

From the start, O’Connell is keenly attendant to the nuances of how Macarthur describes what he refers to as his “criminal episode”—the larger plan was a “venture” that he wanted to “succeed”. This language, O’Connell argues, “encapsulates the psychological paradox of the whole affair: ruthless logic in service of a deeper madness.” Macarthur distances himself from the monstrousness of his actions by the use of the passive voice. He also repeatedly describes himself as a man with a “fixity of purpose”—a phrase first employed by one of the barristers on his defence team—and insists on conceiving of these events as an aberration. 

One of the book’s most chilling elements is that Macarthur sees himself as an inherently good man. He insists that he’s not a “natural criminal”, whatever that means—images of the Victorian pseudoscience of phrenology (the belief that we could diagnose criminal tendencies based on the measurements and shapes of people’s skulls) flitted through my mind—but an upstanding citizen; generous, thoughtful, kind. This seemingly absurd paradox doesn’t just make for unsettling reading, it also throws O’Connell’s narrative into disarray. 

Part of O’Connell’s initial attraction to Macarthur “was a desire to penetrate beneath the surface of biological facts to the inner logic of his life”. But, he explains, this approach necessitates thinking of Macarthur as a “character”, and his crimes as “a bizarre and compelling story”. This, of course, is precisely what true crime does. It imposes narrative, shape and distance on events that otherwise defy comprehension.

Can we demystify the motivations for Macarthur’s horrendous crimes without further exploiting and disenfranchising his victims?

“I think what I’ve done is really elevate a true story with beautiful prose and emotional explorations of the killers’ mindsets,” writes the fictional true crime reporter-turned-nonfiction novelist Alec Carelli in Eliza Clark’s new novel, Penance—a cold and clever take on contemporary culture’s obsession with true crime. Carelli’s parroting the kind of praise usually heaped on exemplars of the genre. (He thinks of himself as a modern-day Truman Capote, and his book a Brexit-era, seaside town-set In Cold Blood.) What writers like him fail to acknowledge, but O’Connell is bold enough to point out, is how some of the same “cold and methodical violence” that typifies the crimes under discussion inevitably permeates the text itself as a result of this process of narrativisation. Can he even attempt to demystify the motivations for Macarthur’s horrendous crimes without exploiting and disenfranchising Macarthur’s victims, O’Connell wonders?

A Thread of Violence suggests that some of these pitfalls can’t be avoided. O’Connell invokes a whole host of fictional characters to whom he can draw parallels with Macarthur. From Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, the unrepentant serial killer played by Dennis Price in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, to the icy-cold meticulousness of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Macarthur’s “fastidious parsing of moral niceties”, O’Connell suggests, is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s cunning psychopath Tom Ripley.

And last, but not least, there’s Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. O’Connell wants to witness Macarthur realising and reckoning with the true horror of what he did. He wants Macarthur to admit that his violence now defines him. O’Connell craves the catharsis such a declaration would bring—for himself, as a fitting conclusion to his long obsession; for Macarthur, as a sign of repentance; but first and foremost, as the proper dénouement for the narrative he hoped A Thread of Violence would be. 

In a stroke of genius, O’Connell provides us with a final confession; but it’s not Macarthur’s. “In failing to confront the awful enormity of his sins—in failing to be annihilated by it—Macarthur had failed me as a character,” O’Connell admits with what feels like an honesty so revealing it verges on a violence of its own. “He had denied me the satisfaction of an ending.” What he’s left with, instead, is an impenetrable darkness.