A murder in Dublin
On a June morning in 1887 the mutilated bodies of a man and a boy are found in the Phoenix Park. Det Sgt Joe Swallow is sent to the scene, in this extract from a new novel by CONOR BRADY
BY 11 O’CLOCK, when Dr Henry Lafeyre, the Dublin medical examiner, reached the copse of trees inside the Chapelizod Gate of the Phoenix Park, the morning sun was climbing over the city. Untrammelled even by a single cloud, it had cleared the small hills that flank the bay to the south – Dalkey and Killiney. Then it set its course behind the dead volcanic peak of the Sugarloaf, past Two Rock and Three Rock. At midday it would burn steadily in a diamond sky above Djouce Mountain.
Joe Swallow worked productively and easily with Harry Lafeyre. Sometimes, Swallow thought that although he was 10 years the senior of the medical examiner, the two men saw something of themselves in each other’s life story.
Lafeyre, the forensic examiner and physician, had served for three years as medical officer with the Cape Colony mounted police, in southern Africa. He was “a copper with a stethoscope”, as he humorously recalled it.
Swallow would have been a doctor rather than a detective sergeant in the Dublin Metropolitan Police had he not drunk his way through two years of medical school, “pissing away hard-earned savings from the family business”, as his father, in his final illness, had put it bitterly.
Lafeyre’s brougham carriage, driven by his general assistant, a dour young man named Scollan, trundled across the track and rolled to a stop beside the DMP car that had brought Swallow and Doolan back from their breakfast at the Kilmainham station mess hall.
He had telegraphed a preliminary report from Kilmainham to Dublin Castle.
By the time he and Doolan returned to the crime scene, three G-division detectives had arrived from the day shift at Exchange Court. Two of these, Tom Swift and Mick Feore, were now leading door-to-door inquiries in the houses on the park side of Chapelizod village.
The third, Pat Mossop, was seated in his shirtsleeves on the step of the sidecar. Mossop was a “book man”. Now he sat, filling in details in the big foolscap pages of the murder book, his slight frame perspiring through his white shirt.
When he could get him, Pat Mossop was Swallow’s first choice in the role of book man. Appointing the book man was a key task for an investigator leading a serious criminal inquiry. He was the meticulous recorder of every detail and each scrap of information that came in. He was the one who would be expected to see connections or patterns in the material collected by the men on the ground. He had to have the ability to remember everything and forget nothing.
Swallow reckoned that Pat Mossop was probably the best book man in the G division. It was in his training. He had been a clerk in a Belfast mill before joining the police, and he brought the disciplines of modern industry with him. Swallow liked him for his irrepressible optimism. Sometimes, especially in the fallow stages of an investigation, it was what kept a G-man going.
“I’m sorry it’s taken me a while,” Lafeyre apologised. “I had an early patient with an acute appendix in the surgery. Once I got her down to Mercer’s Hospital I got here as quickly as I could.”
He hefted his examination bag from inside the brougham. “The message said it’s a dead man and a child.”
“Don’t worry about your timing, doctor. We didn’t have any other great plans for the day,” Stephen Doolan said with an attempt at black humour.
“When you see what’s above there in the trees you’ll understand why.” Swallow saw Doolan’s eyes suddenly fix in alertness. The uniformed sergeant nodded to a point somewhere over Harry Lafeyre’s shoulder.
“You take the doctor over to the scene, Joe, and I’ll deal with these gentlemen here.”
Swallow followed Doolan’s gaze to where two Ringsend cars, Dublin’s inexpensive equivalent of the hackney cab, were clattering along the Acres Road from the direction of Chesterfield Avenue.
Even at this distance he could recognise some of the pressmen. The news had obviously reached the Freeman’s Journal, the Evening Telegraph, Saunders Newsletter and The Irish Times. In all, the two Ringsend cars seemed to be carrying seven or eight pressmen.
“You go ahead,” Doolan said. “I’ll slow these fellows in their gallop.”
The sergeant walked forward to meet the coming cars, right hand raised to arrest their approach. Doolan was good at that sort of thing, Swallow reflected. With the added height of the police helmet over his bearded features, he was an impressive 6ft 9in. Even a carload of news-hungry reporters would hesitate to challenge his authority.
“A policeman mightn’t need a lot of brains in every situation,” Doolan liked to quip, “but he needs a certain amount of altitude.” Swallow, Mossop and Lafeyre strode to the copse of trees.
Now it was Swallow’s turn to lift the grey blanket from the adult body between the beeches. The heat of the morning had accelerated the processes of decomposition, and the skin, waxen white earlier, was beginning to tinge with faint green and blue. Swallow could see that armies of small woodland insects had gathered where blood had spattered on the mossy earth. Some had already begun to explore the corpse. Buzzing summer flies began to land on the face and skull when the blanket was lifted.
Lafeyre surveyed the destruction to the face and skull. He squatted silently beside the body and reached out to touch the right arm, replicating Swallow’s test of some hours previously. This time the arm moved a little.
“Rigor mortis is passing,” he said. “Allowing for the warmth of the day, I’d estimate he’s dead perhaps 12 hours. Say about 10 o’clock last night, give or take an hour.” Pat Mossop’s pencil scratched the details in the murder book.
Lafeyre got to his feet and nodded to the smaller form under the second blanket.
“That’s the boy, I assume.”
Swallow lifted the second blanket. Lafeyre squatted again and pushed at the small, clasped hands with his forefinger. The tones of the skin had deepened in places to a bluish mottle. Lafeyre put his right hand under the child’s head, raising it sufficiently to see the back of the skull.
“Grim bloody work by somebody,” he said after an interval. He turned back to Swallow.
“How much have you learned? Any idea what happened?”
“Not really. And no scrap of identification.”
Swallow gestured to the woodland floor around them.
“The ground here under the trees is too dry to get anything like decent footprints. They’re doing house-to-house inquiries now in the village and the cottages, but we’ve no witnesses so far. We’ve interviewed the park-keeper, but I don’t think he’s involved.”
Lafeyre grimaced. “Not much that’s helpful in any of that.”
“Nothing. What do you make of it?” Swallow nodded towards the bodies.
“Someone did a hacking job on the faces. I’ll need to get them to the morgue to have a look with the microscope.” He pointed to the circular wound on the man’s left temple.
“At a good guess, that’s our cause of death. The same for the child, I’d say. There’s been little enough bleeding, as you can see. There aren’t any defensive wounds on the hands either. So I’d hazard that the mutilation on the faces was done post mortem – for which small mercy you might be grateful. Have you looked at the wounds?”
Swallow nodded. “They look like bullet entries. But there aren’t any exit wounds.”
Lafeyre drew a brass-rimmed magnifying glass from his bag and leaned forward across the body, scrutinising the blackened cavity on the man’s forehead.
“It’s impossible to say. There’s probably a slug in there, perhaps from a very low-velocity weapon. I won’t know until I can do a probe later.”
He turned his back to where Doolan and the other uniformed police were standing, some 20 or 30 yards back. He dropped his voice.
“How’re you going to handle this with our friends of the press?” He jerked a thumb towards where Doolan stood with the reporters.
“I haven’t much to tell them. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill brawl. We’ve no witnesses. No motive. No weapon. We don’t even know who they are, for God’s sake.”
“Well, you’re going to have to present yourself as knowing more than you do,” Lafeyre said quietly.
The sound of raised voices drifted across the grass. Swallow turned to see Doolan raise his arms, as if entreating the reporters to be patient.
Swallow knew what Harry Lafeyre was worried about. Most of the Dublin press had developed a taste for the outrageous and the bloodthirsty. It had been stimulated by the brutal knifings of Lord Frederick Cavendish, the chief secretary for Ireland, and his undersecretary, Thomas Henry Burke, in the park five years previously. Three months later it had been reinforced by the massacre of five members of one family, the Joyces, in the remote Maamtrasna district of Connemara.
The newspapers were filled with daily accounts of shootings, burnings and rioting across rural Ireland as a desperate but now inflamed tenantry fought the landlords and their agents for control of their farms with the police caught in the middle.
The beleaguered Dublin Castle administration had determined to break the Irish National Land League, inspired by the charismatic, one-armed Michael Davitt, from Co Mayo. When key nationalist members of the Westminster parliament initiated what became known as the plan of campaign, many of Davitt’s supporters took it as a prompt to adopt stronger methods of direct action.
A case like this would offer a newsworthy if ghastly variation on the nightly toll being reported from the countryside. The Dublin police had largely escaped the criticisms being levelled against the Royal Irish Constabulary. But a case of extreme violence like this would be ideal fodder for newspapers seeking to outdo each other in their sense of outrage.
Swallow strode out of the copse to the group of reporters. They were already shouting questions before he reached them.
“Who’s the dead man, Joe?”
“How old is the child?”
“We’ve been told it’s a brutal case. Is it true?”
“Have you any clues at this stage?”
“Can we come up to have a look?”
Swallow placed himself beside Doolan and raised his hands to still the cacophony.
“I can’t answer everyone at the same time. And I can’t say much to you that you can attribute officially to the police. If you want the official position on anything, you know where the commissioner’s office is in the lower castle yard.”
There was an impatient murmur, and Swallow heard a swear word. He knew that no journalist ever got any useful information about anything from the commissioner’s office.
“First, there’s no question of anybody being let up there. There’s a dead man and a young boy in the copse. We don’t know who they are, and we don’t know what happened to them. I can tell you the man is probably in his 20s, maybe a bit more. The boy could be eight or nine years old.”
“Is it true they’re completely unrecognisable?” The question came from Andrew Dunlop, The Irish Times’s man.
“The bodies aren’t a pleasant sight, but I’m confident we’ll establish who they are,” Swallow said.
“Who found them and when?”
It was the Evening Telegraph’s reporter, Simon Sweeney.
Always fashionably dressed and well groomed, Sweeney was more polished and better spoken than most of his press colleagues. Swallow had heard that he was the product of an expensive private education and had graduated from Trinity College. Had he not known the young reporter’s avocation he might have taken him for a solicitor or a bank official.
Swallow detailed the sequence of communication from when the park-keeper’s dog had led his master to the copse in the early hours.
“Have you established the cause of death, sergeant?” The Irish Times’s man asked.
“That’s a matter for Dr Lafeyre, the medical examiner, to determine. At this time we don’t know.”
“You don’t seem to know very much at all, do you?” The tone was sarcastic and hostile, and it was more of a comment than a question. It came from Irving, the reporter for the London Daily Sketch. Swallow and he had clashed many times in the past.
“That’s sometimes how crime investigations work, Mr Irving,” Swallow replied evenly. “We’re in the very early stages of this one. As I said, I’m confident we’ll know a lot more as we go on.”
Irving sneered. “You were just as confident about the Elizabeth Logan murder. Were you not, Mr Swallow?”
Swallow felt himself flush. Elizabeth Logan was a prostitute whose body had been found on Sandymount Strand a year previously. The early identification of a suspect had proven to be ill founded. Swallow knew that his handling of the case had not been the high point of his career.
His face registered the surge of irritation. Sweeney shot a warning look at his colleague.
“Leave it alone, Irving,” he hissed, jabbing his pencil towards Swallow.
“It does sound as if you’ve got nothing much to go on at this stage, Sergeant,” Sweeney said sharply. “Why would anyone shoot a man and a child? Isn’t that most unusual? Maybe it was a robbery.”
Swallow seemed to hesitate, as if considering something that had just occurred to him.
“Every murder case is unusual, Mr Sweeney. And, no, I don’t have any idea about motive at this stage. It would be helpful if any of your valued readers were aware of a man and a young boy gone missing. If that were to be so, the detective office at Exchange Court would be glad to hear from them.”
Sweeney sighed with irritation.
“Is that all we get for being out here at this hour of the morning?”
“I didn’t ask you to be here at all, Mr Sweeney,” Swallow snapped. “And I’ve been here myself from an even earlier hour.”
He forced himself to what he hoped was a smile. “Now, gentlemen, if you don’t mind, I have my work to do, and I imagine that you have printing deadlines to meet.” He walked back to Pat Mossop, who was finishing his notes in the murder book.
“Set up a crime conference for 11 o’clock in the morning at Exchange Court. And notify the City coroner that we have two deaths by misadventure, an unknown man and a male child. Advise him that when we have causes of death confirmed by Dr Lafeyre we’ll be asking him to set up an inquest.”
He queried Lafeyre.
“When can I expect to have the postmortem reports?”
“I’ve got patients at Harcourt Street until about five o’clock, but I’ll try to get working on them this evening. I’ll have something by tomorrow morning. Say nine o’clock.”
Almost a full day would be gone, Swallow reckoned. The bureaucracy of violent death moved at its own pace. But there was little point in protesting. Harry Lafeyre had a practice to look after. He had to earn a living too.
Mossop read Swallow’s mind.
The book man tried to be positive, as was his wont, in the guise of humour.
“Ah, I know what you’re thinking, boss. But, sure, jam tomorrow is better than no jam at all?”
This is an edited extract from A June of Ordinary Murders, published by New Island (€14.99). Conor Brady is a former editor of The Irish Timesand most recently worked as one of the three Garda Síochána Ombudsman commissioners