Book Review: A Thread of Violence, by Mark O’Connell

Alerted by a review in The Oldie magazine that I’d picked up in Manchester airport before flying home this week, I ordered a copy of A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder by Mark O’Connell. I read it in two long sittings.

Irish front-page news, 1982

I was unaware of the notoriety of the main character: double-murderer Malcolm Macarthur. His arrest in that year, while hiding out in the Dublin home of Ireland’s attorney general, Patrick Connolly, was a scandal that almost toppled the government. Anyone who followed the news in Ireland and the UK in the 1980s would know of this notorious case. But I did not, so I came to book as naive about these events as most in the States will be.

I was hooked after the first three chapters, which detail the background to the crime, the subsequent release of the man from prison after 30 years–apparently, most murderers in Ireland are released from prison after serving just 17–and the author’s attempts to persuade the man to tell his side of the story.

Reflexive reporting

As much as this is a true crime story, it is a story about the writing of the story. O’Connell struggles with both the logistics of reporting–how to gain the subject’s trust–and the moral qualms about how sympathetically to portray him. More than the thread of violence, it is a thread of lies. Macarthur is a fabulist whose narrative is contradictory, evasive, and self-justifying.

The author is a constant presence as a character in his own book. As I wrote of my recent reading of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, in real life, as much remains hidden as revealed. O’Connell addresses the challenge of trying to make sense of the nonsensical–how could a cultivated, bookish man, unfailingly charming to all he met, commit these gruesome crimes? His subject evades precise analysis, and in writing about this, we are shown how fragmented, unknowable, and mysterious the world is.

The Ascendancy

Macarthur was born into the privileged landowning class of the Irish Republic. He inherited from emotionally distant parents enough money to live a life of cultured ease in the Dublin of the 1970s. He frequented the Trinity College library, met with the literary elite, and traveled to London to attend opening nights at the theater. Until his funds ran out.

He then hatched a hair-brained scheme to rob a bank and, in preparation, stole a car and attempted to buy a shotgun–needlessly killing the young nurse who owned the car and the young farmer who owned the gun. On the run, he then imposed on the goodwill of the Irish attorney general–an acquaintance from his days as a flâneur who hung with the Dublin elite–and was invited to stay in his apartment, where, in an even more surreal moment, they were driven to a sports fixture in a car chauffeured by a policeman, while detectives were desperately trying to locate him.

This, O’Connell makes abundantly clear, was due to the regard with which a particular type of upper-crust, bow-tie-wearing, diffident, educated man fooled the powers that be.

Parallels with Congressman George Santos occurred to me, as did the eerie resemblance of his picture on the cover to Tucker Carlson.

The political fallout from the arrest of a murderer in the home of the senior law enforcement officer in Ireland led to resignations and a suspicion of a government cover-up. The newspapers coined the term Gubu (grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, and unprecedented) when describing the events.

In the end, Macarthur got the life he wanted: long years of idleness to study literature and philosophy in minimum-security prisons and eventual freedom to live a state-supported life back in Dublin where he again frequents the literary salons.

The victims’ families were not given any relief.

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