Did I Talk With a Killer?

by Sheila Connolly

Do you ever wonder what you would do if you came face to face with someone you never expected to meet, but who you know far too much about? It happened to me recently.

In July I was in Ireland, and whenever I’m in West Cork I make a point of going to the Skibbereen Farmers Market, which is pretty close to my idea of heaven. This year there was a new twist.

Somewhere in the back of that crowd…

 

I have a friend at the market who is an antiques dealer, as well as a mystery writer and a for-hire editor, and we’ve been talking for years, whenever I’m there. He always has interesting odds and ends a old books, and we chat about antiques.

My first hardcover book, Cruel Winter, came out earlier this year. It is my fictionalized retelling of a murder that took place in County Cork twenty years ago, which remains unsolved. For the book I stuck all my usual series characters plus a few new ones in the usual pub, and kept them there overnight during a rare Irish blizzard. What did they do? Talk, of course. The wild card was a stranger among them, who lived in England and was trying to get to the airport, and she turned out to be the suspect in, yes, an old murder. She was never arrested or tried, but everyone assumed she’d done the deed. So of course the gang stuck in the pub decided to give her the trial she’d never had, with her cooperation. She could finally tell her side of the story.

The crime portion of the book was based on a true story. I changed a number of things, but in my version I preserved the location and layout, the general investigation procedures, and all the forensic evidence. I spent a year researching it on and off, and despite the fact that it’s an old crime, it still makes national news in Ireland with surprising regularity (Ireland is a small country with little crime, and this remains an open case), and I read all those newspaper articles online.

The primary suspect—indeed, the only one—lived then and lives now in West Cork. So when I called on my antiquarian friend this time, he said, “He’s right over there. Want to meet him?”

Uh, you think? When the literary gods drop an opportunity like that on you, grab it! So I marched over and had a conversation with one of Ireland’s best known murder suspects. No script, no plan. We danced around how much I knew about his history, but he knew that I knew it. He was there selling books of his own poetry at a card table (of course I bought a book—autographed). He read to me a poem he’d written about the farmers market. Since he’s been kind of unemployable for a while, he’s making the rounds of the summer markets selling his book. He also raises fresh greens for sale to restaurants. And he offered to lend me his gardener for my cottage.

This was certainly a conversation I never expected to have.

I’d guess most people have forgotten about the murder, especially if they don’t read the newspapers. I’d bet that I know more about the details of the crime than the general population of Ireland. I never tried to interview him, but there he was in front of me. Older, but still recognizable. And he has a certain charm, even now. He’s articulate, intelligent and oddly self-confident.

In the book, my snowbound characters decided that the primary suspect did not in fact kill the victim. I haven’t changed my mind about that outcome, and for the book I came up with a different theory of the crime, one that fits what limited evidence there was. The “real” suspect and I didn’t discuss it—after all, the book is finished and on shelves now. I used my time to study the person I’d been reading about for over a year, who was accused of a bloody crime, and wondered what the truth was.

Ireland seems full of unexpected surprises like this, and being a mystery writer makes it even better!

What about you? What would you have done? Has something like that ever happened to you?

 

22 thoughts on “Did I Talk With a Killer?

  1. Nothing like that has ever happened to me either. Bravo for seizing the opportunity. Me? I don’t know. I’d be playing out the scenario in my head about the mystery writer who ended up knowing too much getting killed in her sleep by the murderer she met at the farmer’s market!

    • Ooh, I like that plot! “He thought he’d gotten away with it, until he met a nosy writer…”

      I’m not the type to barge in on celebrities on the street, but this was an unusual case. When you know someone only from pictures, it’s intriguing to see what they’re really like (I mean, he could have sounded like Donald Duck–but he didn’t). And seeing his personality makes some elements of the real crime more understandable.

      Next: trying to engineer a chance encounter with Jeremy Irons, who lives in a castle not to far from my cottage.

  2. Oh Sheila, that was serendipity for real! So glad that you “seized the moment” as you did. No, it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I hope I’ll be as calm as you were if it does. I’ll bet you’ll not only meet Jeremy Irons, but you’ll be invited to the castle too!

  3. OMG! and I’m buying it. As luck would have it, when I was practicing criminal defense, I did meet a couple of men who were ultimately convicted of murder. One of them was so scary, I hired an 6’4″ Vietnam vet as my investigator to go with me into the jailhouse to meet with him.

  4. Many years ago I was asked to visit a prison inmate with an eye to helping him tell his life story. He’d grown up in a Mafia family and I’ll leave it there. While he was charm personified, his eyes were cold and hard. He started telling me stories of his past life and the murders he’d gleefully committed. I had letters he’d sent me before we met, describing some of these events in great detail. I showed them to a psychologist at the local college, who told me he was a psychopath, and if he ever got out of prison, I could expect him on my doorstep as he would see me as someone who’d been kind to him. I ran as fast I could away from that project!

  5. Suspected is not the same as guilty. One should never refuse an opportunity if iit is safe to follow it up. Broad daylight in public is generally safe. Good for you for following through.

    • The Irish police could never find enough evidence to arrest him, and the highest court in the country agreed. Twice. But he’s a complex individual, with a degree of arrogance. Not exactly a beaten man! It was so interesting to put a face and a voice to the man.

  6. Suspected is not the same as guilty. One should never refuse an opportunity if it is safe to follow it up. Broad daylight in public is generally safe. Good for you for following through.

  7. Fascinating, Sheila. I’d be so curious that I would forget how to make conversation. Rather, I’d spend the time awkwardly assessing him and being suspicious of his charm!

    • Well, he was there to sell books, and I told him I was a writer and handed him a bookmark of mine. But I was also taking mental notes, matching up what I thought I knew to the man in front of me. No surprises. But from what I’ve read, the charm and the arrogance were always there.

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