Conor Brady: back on the crime beat
The ‘Irish Times’ editor turned novelist has used skills he picked up as a cub reporter to enrich his trilogy of Joe Swallow historical crime thrillers
Conor Brady: says A Hunt in Winter is loosely based on a murder in Rathmines. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It’s a bit weird, going to interview your ex-boss. He hasn’t been the editor of The Irish Times for many years. We’re both a lot older, and possibly wiser, than we were when he took charge of the paper, in 1986. But there’s a nagging feeling of unease. You know the sort of thing; a vague sense that you’re about to be hauled over the coals for some mistake or misdemeanour you can’t even put a name to.
The feeling vanishes the instant I step into Café du Journal in Monkstown, in south Co Dublin. The atmosphere is festive, and a beaming Conor Brady sits at a table already furnished with two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. He is clearly well known to the staff, and he, in turn, knows each of them by name. Relaxed, jokey exchanges ensue. This is not the stern, rather enigmatic man of my memory.
He is still, however, a stickler for accuracy. Brady’s new book, a historical crime thriller set in Dublin in 1888, is based on a real murder investigation from the time. Or is it? “There was a young woman murdered in Blackberry Lane in Rathmines, about 20 years before I’ve set A Hunt in Winter,” he says. “She was a waitress in a restaurant downtown. They never got to the bottom of it, never solved it. I built my own plot around that. I’m quite free and easy about the murder part, because it’s fiction and not history. But then there’s the political dimension – home rule and the land war and all of that – and I really have to get that right.”
A degree in history and politics helps with the latter, as does a fascination with Ireland in the late 19th century. “Recently, everybody has been focusing on events from 1914 onwards. But in reality modern Ireland was shaped in the 1880s,” he says. “A lot of things happened in that decade. Tenant farmers became proprietors, we got county councils and urban councils, the GAA was formed, the Gaelic revival got under way. So the big cultural influences all emerged at that time.”
It was also a time when people were especially conflicted around Irish identity. “And this is where Joe Swallow comes in,” Brady says. “He’s a combination of things. He’s a Catholic; his family owns a pub on the Curragh, in Kildare; his grandfather was out with the pikemen in 1798; and yet here he is, working for the crown at Dublin Castle.”
Across the three investigations chronicled in Brady’s books A June of Ordinary Murders, The Eloquence of the Dead and A Hunt in Winter, Joe Swallow has not only progressed from detective sergeant to detective inspector but also developed from the slightly shadowy figure of the first novel to a man with a life, a partner and a baby on the way. How would Brady describe Swallow? “He is in his early 40s. Not a bad-looking fella. Drinks a bit too much. Clean shaven. Good company. A little bit of a chip on his shoulder about the fact that he had to abandon his medical career and ends up pounding the streets of Dublin.”
In the books Swallow is part of a team of well-drawn recurring characters, from the plain-spoken copper “Duck” Boyle to the suave Dublin city medical examiner Dr Harry Lafeyre. Brady’s creations mingle easily with historical figures: Michael Davitt puts in an appearance in A Hunt in Winter, as does a woman criminal who, having murdered her mistress with a blow from a chamber pot, rejoices in the name of Ces “Pisspot” Downes.
“People seem to like the characters. But more than one person has said to me that the real character of the stories is the city. The personality of the city, in its glories and in its sorrows. And in the way one moves from the very privileged corridors of power out to the more wretched sectors of the population, living in very poor conditions – with the police somewhere in between.”
Brady weaves numerous nuggets of sociohistorical information into his narratives. One striking passage in A Hunt in Winter describes the devastation caused by the Dublin Gas Company’s furnaces on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to the surrounding streets, not to mention the canal itself: “The air was heavy with sulphur. The canal water was the colour of rust from the chemicals that leached from the plant . . . ” These details are not inserted simply for decorative effect but form part of an atmospheric chapter in which tired furnace men, heading for the pub after their shift, stumble across the body of a badly beaten young woman.
For nitty-gritty details of the day-to-day work of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Brady maintains a personal library of specialist books. “My late father was a teacher. He had no police training at all. But he was appointed as a superintendent in the 1920s, at the age of 23. So he bought two books from Foyle’s in London, Crime and Its Detection, volume I and volume II. I still have them at home. It’s all basic stuff about fingerprints and paint traces – and in fact very little had changed between the 1880s and the 1920s.”
Another volume is devoted to the grisly joys of Victorian forensic pathology. “It goes through all the horrible things they would have had to deal with – like, how do you know the signs of death by drowning? How do you know the signs of death by gunshot wound? Poisoning was the one which had them all baffled, of course, so there are specific tests for strychnine and arsenic.”
Brady was also a member of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission from 2005 to 2011. But it seems being a cub reporter at The Irish Times was a surprisingly good training ground for a future historical crime writer. “When I joined the paper, new reporters were sentenced to a thing called evening town. Which basically meant you sat in the office, you rang the police stations, the fire brigade, the ambulance, the lifeboats. And anything that happened, you went out on it.
“Nobody had cars, and taxis were few and far between, so you walked everywhere. I spent my early years basically tramping the streets at night, reporting on fires, floods and crimes. You get to know the city terribly well that way.”
Now that Joe Swallow is so well established will Brady write a fourth book in the series? “I don’t know,” he says. “There’s a sort of a neatness in three. And yet, if I were to go forward, the historical landscape becomes very, very interesting – so it’s very, very tempting to stay with it.” Then he launches into an enthusiastic account of another idea altogether: the true tale of an Irish monk named Benedict who was elected pope in 523 but fled Rome before taking office.
As I leave the cafe I have to smile. I have no idea which of the two options constitutes Brady’s real answer to my final question – or whether he has a third tucked tidily, and enigmatically, up his sleeve. The former editor of The Irish Times has plenty of stories in him yet.
A Hunt in Winter, by Conor Brady, is published by New Island
Murder most foul – If you like Joe Swallow you might also like:The Convictions of John DelahuntAndrew Hughes
Peeler, by Kevin McCarthy (Mercier Press, 2010). The first in a series set in west Cork during the War of Independence opens with the body of a young woman on a windswept hillside. Acting sergeant Seán O’Keefe of the Royal Irish Constabulary is called in to investigate.
The Blood Dimmed Tide, by Anthony Quinn (No Exit Press, 2014). A body washed ashore in a coffin, a madcap journey along the Wild Atlantic Way – and WB Yeats, no less, taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes? A hoot.
Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (Penguin, 2016). Written as Benjamin Black, John Banville’s seven books starring the lugubrious pathologist Quirke – played in the BBC adaptations by Gabriel Byrne (left) – get better and better. Here a car bursts into flames, a pregnant woman disappears and 1950s Dublin is swathed in smog, whiskey fumes and nefarious carry-on.