Stranger than fiction: when crime captures the imagination
Nicola White’s new novel ‘In the Rosary Garden’ was inspired by the Kerry Babies tribunal and the Ann Lovett case. We recommend some other real-life fiction from Ireland and abroad
Emma Donoghue’s Room was inspired by the case of Josef Fritzl, who was jailed for life for the rape and enslavement of his daughter in a cellar over 24 years and causing his son’s death. Photograph: Reuters
In the Forest by Edna O’Brien, 2002
Set in familiar O’Brien territory in the rural west of Ireland, In the Forest is based on the real-life tragedy of artist Imelda Riney and her young son, who were abducted and murdered by a neighbour Brendan O’Donnell in Whitegate, Co Clare in 1994. While serving a life sentence in Dundrum Mental Hospital for their murders and that of a local priest, O’Donnell was found dead in 1997, inspiring O’Brien to a fictional retelling of events. Her novel gets inside the head of its troubled protagonist Mich O’Kane, charting his course from childhood, to his time spent in a juvenile institution, to his development into a disturbed young man whose internal voices urge him to be “a desperado, to earn for himself the name and state of outlaw.”
The Book of Evidence by John Banville, 1989
The unreliable narrator of John Banville’s novel recounts the story of how he came to murder a servant girl in his family home. Of Anglo-Irish lineage, Freddie Montgomery returns to one of Ireland’s famed “big houses” looking for money and is unimpressed to discover his mother has sold the family’s art collection. The central events of the murder and Freddie’s subsequent flight are loosely based on the 1982 case of Malcolm Edward MacArthur, who sought refuge at the home of the Attorney General after killing a young nurse in Dublin.
Room by Emma Donoghue, 2010
Donoghue’s Booker short-listed novel was conceived in the wake of the Josef Fritzl case in Austria in 2008. Fritzl held his daughter Elizabeth captive for 24 years, fathering seven children with her over the course of her incarceration. Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, a child whose entire existence has been spent in captivity with his mother. Sheltered by her from the worst of the atrocities, Jack is nevertheless aware that Old Nick is an evil presence in their world and their attempts to escape from his confines make for a heart-breaking and compelling narrative.
Nothing to Say by Mannix Flynn, 1983
Mannix Flynn’s autobiographical novel Nothing to Say relates his time as a pupil in St Joseph’s Industrial School in Letterfrack and the sexual and physical abuse he was subjected to while resident there for 18 months. Learning to steal to survive at a young age in the York Street tenements in Dublin, Flynn is sent to Letterfrack in Connemara at the age of 11, where he endures sexual abuse from day one. A gruelling narrative of the injustice experienced by the author personally, Nothing to Say is also an important testament of the thousands of others who were similarly mistreated.
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, 1956
The Italian scientist Levi’s account of his deportation to Poland and the 20 months he spent in Auschwitz is witness literature at its best. A vivid and clearly rendered narrative about the lives and deaths of those in the concentration camps, it focuses on the smaller, daily details of mass human suffering and acts as both a testament and warning to future generations: “No one must leave here and so carry to the world, together with the sign impressed on his skin, the evil tidings of what man’s presumption made of man in Auschwitz.”
Mother of Pearl by Mary Morrissy, 1995
Shortlisted for the Whitbread Award (now Costa) in 1996, Mary Morrissy’s debut novel Mother of Pearl is based on a kidnapping that took place in 1950s Dublin where a child was taken and placed in another family. The child at the centre of the case died as a young woman in her thirties and Morrissy, drawn to the poignancy of such a short life defined by the transgressive act of another, uses it as a springboard to examine themes of kinship, family and the culture of oppression surrounding women and sex in mid-twentieth-century Ireland.
Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty, 1980
Based on a real-life incident where a Christian Brother killed a boy he was trying to rescue from an industrial school, MacLaverty’s Lamb is a grim study of institutional abuse and its disastrous consequences. No longer willing to be part of a regime that used “a little of God and a lot of fear”, the book’s protagonist Brother Sebastian flees to London with a young pupil, hoping to be his saviour. A film version was released in 1985 starring Liam Neeson, Hugh O’Connor and Ian Bannen.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, 1966
Considered by many to be the definitive non-fiction novel, Truman Capote’s masterpiece takes as its source material the quadruple murder of a prosperous farming family from Kansas. Herbert Klutter, his wife and two of their four children were murdered at their ranch during the night of November 15th, 1959 by two ex-convicts on parole who had hatched a plan to rob the property and leave no witnesses. Travelling to Kansas in the wake of the murders, and before the killers were apprehended, Capote and his friend and fellow author Harper Lee collected thousands of pages in interviews from local residents and case investigators. It took Capote six years to compile the testimony and complete In Cold Blood, a pioneer of the true crime genre and still widely recognised today as the greatest novel of this ilk.
The Revolution Script by Brian Moore, 1971
Although subsequently disowned by its author as “journalism”, Moore’s novel is a fictionalised account of the kidnappings of a British commissioner and a government minister in Quebec, Canada by members of a separatist movement. It culminated with the murder of the minister for labour Pierre Laporte and the eventual release of the British commissioner James Cross. Belfast-born Moore uses a documentary style in his novel to retell events, giving a voice to the rebels in the process.
Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, 1994
Eoin McNamee’s debut novel takes place on the dangerous streets of 1970s Belfast. Victor Kelly is the eponymous antihero, a violent and ruthless killer whose story stems from the crimes of a real-life loyalist murder gang, the Shankill Butchers. Cruising the streets looking for Catholic prey, Kelly’s sinister kerb-crawling mirrors the sectarian reality where gang members picked up victims according to the streets where they lived. McNamee wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film version starring Stuart Townsend, John Hannah and Brenda Fricker.