When a ‘good father’ decides to kill his whole family
Catherine Talbot explores the male-dominated crime known as ‘family annihilation’
Catherine Talbot: “I wanted to think about motivation, as to how this could happen. And I struck on the theme of jealousy.” Photograph: Michael Durand
“By the end of next summer, before the kids go back to school, I will kill my family.” This is the chilling opening line of Catherine Talbot’s debut novel A Good Father. The book is written from the perspective of life insurance salesman Des, who lives with his artist wife Jenny and their three children in a Dublin suburb.
To the outside world Des is a “good” father. A “good” partner. A “good” man. Des, it also emerges, is a snobbish, self-aggrandising, abusive husband who in between his parental pontificating and complaints about his wife buying the “wrong” fish fingers, is planning to murder her and their children.
On a Zoom call from the Dublin home she shares with her two children and husband, Talbot explains that the book was written before the pandemic but acknowledges that Covid-19 – and the rise of domestic violence cases – has made it more timely.
“The character of Des was very strong for me from the beginning, but it was only when I worked through the novel I realised that I’d hit on a lot of other issues that were universal…”
The increase in domestic violence around the world has been described by the United Nations as “the shadow pandemic”.
In Ireland gardaí have reported an increase in calls in relation to such cases. A report late last year from Safe Ireland, Tracking the Shadow Pandemic, showed that a total of 3,450 women and 589 children who were understood to have never contacted a domestic violence service before sought help regarding abuse and coercive control in the first six months of last year.
The words “coercive control” do not appear in A Good Father, but it is as thorough an exploration of the crime as you are likely to find in a novel as we observe the quiet domestic terrorism of Des, who lays down the law from what is watched on TV to what is consumed at the dinner table to when he has sex with his wife.
Women’s Aid defines coercive control as “a persistent pattern of controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour including all or some forms of domestic abuse, by a boyfriend, partner, husband or ex”. It is a more subtle and often more difficult to detect form of abuse which can trap women or men in a relationship.
While the book is being marketed in the “crime” and “thriller” genres, alongside work by Jo Spain and Liz Nugent, it doesn’t quite fit those moulds. Through Des, Talbot is exploring the often misunderstood motivations behind the specific kind of male-dominated crime known as “family annihilation”.
In one study, A Taxonomy of Male British Family Annihilators, 1980-2012, the authors say “the annihilation makes public what had often been a private reality – a reality masked to family, friends and neighbours who often thought that this man had been a ‘doting’ and ‘loving’ father and ‘dutiful’ husband.” That study also found these crimes are most often carried out on Sundays in August.
Readers of A Good Father may find themselves reflecting on a real-life familicide from 2016. Deputy school principal Alan Hawe killed his wife, 39-year-old teacher Clodagh Hawe, and their three sons Liam (13), Niall (11) and Ryan (6) in their Co Cavan home on the night of Sunday, August 28th, that year, the night before schools were due to start back after the summer break. Hawe later killed himself. In the days after that family annihilation Alan Hawe was initially afforded the “good man who snapped” characterisation that sometimes accompanies these cases. After the murders he was described by shocked acquaintances as a person with a “passion” for handball, who was “quiet and a real gentleman” and “very obliging”.
As Wendy Lyon wrote at the time on feministire.com decrying the “good man who snapped” line of thinking, “we must try to look behind the façade of the devoted family man, and map out the murderer beneath. We must learn to recognise him, and more importantly, what made him. What makes all of them. If we persist in deluding ourselves that they just spring up spontaneously from nowhere, we will never learn how to ensure that they don’t.”
What Catherine Talbot has attempted in A Good Father is exactly this. Her protagonist Des helps out coaching the local under-11 soccer team that his twin boys are on. He cleans up around the house, buys treats for his daughter and reads the children stories at bedtime.
To outsiders he would be lauded as a “family man”, devoted to his wife and children. “But appearances can be deceptive,” the book’s blurb reads.
“Rumours at work are threatening his reputation as a devoted family man. And he can’t help but feel that his kids don’t seem to need him as much as they once did. Des is afraid… afraid of past mistakes catching up with him. So afraid of losing control over his family that he is contemplating the unthinkable.”
It might just be coincidence but the night Des chooses for his family annihilation, the murders that are flagged in A Good Father’s opening line, is the last Sunday in August 2017, the night before schools are due to start back after the summer break. I ask Talbot whether the Hawe family were in her head as she wrote the book.
“That’s a really good question,” she says. “Because in terms of the timelines, I’m not 100 per cent sure… I think my book was possibly written before that, or I remember thinking afterwards, when that case came about. I was thinking God, there were similarities in the voicelessness [of victims]… but I wasn’t looking at any particular case.
“I was sort of broadly exploring other cases, or all different types of cases. I thought it was interesting that my book had hit on the idea of the voiceless … focusing on the perpetrator is another way of blocking out the victims.”
She recalls, a few years ago, walking her two then small children to school one day.
“It was a very beautiful morning, crisp, you know one of those September mornings you get. I went for coffee with a friend in Greystones and when I came home I heard on the radio that there was a case where a child had been killed. And I remember thinking…how can something like that happen? I’ve just brought my kids to school. And then that notion starts in my head … how can you hurt somebody that you love? It stayed with me”.
And at the same time she says “I was always very mindful that there are families where these kinds of things do happen. And I was mindful of the fact that I didn’t want to cause any hurt.”
When she finished her first draft she did some “desk research” about similar cases, speaking to people who had worked on the issue of coercive control. Rather than sitting down to write a book about domestic violence, though, she says she wanted “to delve into the mind of the perpetrator because we don’t often get that insight”.
“I had created this very strong character and the point was to get inside the head of his character, who is so far removed from me. Using my imagination to try to explore what could motivate a man who comes across as ’normal’. What would drive that?”
Des – irritating, egocentric, controlling, emotionally and physically abusive – is the only voice in the novel. We never hear from his wife Jenny. “Her voice is completely silent,” Talbot says. “With hindsight the novel is really trying to illuminate that there are people with no voices out there”.
I am reminded again of Clodagh Hawe. For weeks after the murders a hashtag #HerNameWasClodagh went viral on social media bringing attention to what some felt was the erasure of the murdered woman from the story.
It was days before we saw a picture of her – because newspapers did not initially have one of high enough quality – and this perpetuated the idea that as a female victim of male violence she had been rendered “invisible” .
In this newspaper, however, crime editor Conor Lally pointed to a wider failing of the media: “... in an industry driven by images and focused on men and women who perpetrate violence rather than their victims, the coverage of this case flowed exactly – and depressingly – as it always does; perpetrator-centred rather than victim-centred.”
Whether it was gendered or not the fact is, as Talbot points out, victims in these cases are often voiceless and so it is in A Good Father. I suggest to Talbot that the callous, self-serving story told by this extremely unreliable narrator will make it a popular, if bleak, book club choice.
“Yes, because it’s got so many facets. At the time I didn’t realise how many….but, again with hindsight, I think I wanted to unsettle people and unnerve them. I wanted them to think, ‘good god, I hope my daughter doesn’t meet someone like that. How did it happen?’ And at the same time you are unsettled because you don’t really have the answer.”
“I wanted to think about motivation, as to how this could happen. And I struck on the theme of jealousy.” (Des is obsessed with an ex-boyfriend of his wife’s, a man Jenny remains friends with, which annoys him so much he destroys, as a punishment, paintings she had prepared for an exhibition).
“I consider envy as something that you desire, something you don’t have, whereas jealousy is something that you have, and you’re afraid of losing. So I wanted to explore whether that could be enough of a motivating factor. So that’s really where the beginnings of the book came.”
The character of Des is not mentally ill and that was also very deliberate.
“I wanted to show that it’s possible to do something like this if you’re not mentally ill. It’s an exploration of that,” says Talbot.
The author has been with her own husband Dara since she was “very young”.
“I’ve known him longer than I haven’t known him. He’s great, I love him to death,” she says.
Des, in the novel, uses his regular lycra-clad runs to switch off from the everyday. Talbot enjoys daily sea-swimming when “you’re just with yourself and your own thoughts”.
Her daughter and son, both “big readers”, were aware she was writing a book about a man who is contemplating killing his wife and children, but “they think I’m mad anyway,” she smiles. “They know the first line of the book off by heart”.
Working part-time in a bookshop in her hometown of Greystones after years working on Dublin’s arts and music scene, Talbot only came to writing in her 30s. At first she published stories with Banshee Lit, before investing serious time and money in her lifelong writing dream; she is a recent graduate of the year-long masters course in creative writing at Trinity College.
When she sent her manuscript into Penguin Ireland, now Sandycove, she had a gratifying response: “They were really impressed by it ... I thought, ‘this is brilliant’.”
She secured a one-book-deal but the pandemic was “a slap in the face” that meant her book was not released as planned last year. Still, as a first-time author she says “I’m in a good place. I have belief in my work, I have that sense of, as a writer, why not me?”
She reads around seven books at a time, including a lot of non-fiction. Some favourite authors are Paul Auster, Jennifer Johnston and Karl Ove Knausgård. She is currently finishing a third draft of her next book, “a friendship between two male co-workers”, and beginning another, which will be written from the perspective of the “voiceless” Jenny in A Good Father.
Which brings us back to what she sees as her job as a novelist, and her goal with this memorable debut novel.
“I suppose I am trying to illuminate something. I’m not trying to find answers. I don’t have the answers and I’m not claiming to be an expert in any of these issues. I wanted to get under people’s skin.”
A Good Father by Catherine Talbot is published by Sandycove, the Dublin-based imprint of Penguin Random House
If you are affected by any issues raised in this article,Women’s Aid provide support on their 24-hour National Freephone Helpline at 1800 341 900
Safe Ireland outlines a number of local services and helplines at https://www.safeireland.ie/get-help/where-to-find-help/