It’s a dream common to journalists: You finally depart the business after many successful years, and trade your deadline-driven, caffeine-fueled existence for the comparatively slower pace of a book author. That was certainly the path taken by Conor Brady. Following more than three decades as a member of the media, including 16 years as editor of The Irish Times in Dublin, the last few spent restructuring that daily newspaper (“The organization had become rather bloated, and not just the editorial departments,” he recalls. “Too many time-servers and too much feather-bedding.”), he left to pen a trio of nonfiction works—two recounting the history of Irish policing, and one about his lengthy tenure at the Times. In addition, Brady put in a couple of years as a visiting professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York in Manhattan.
“But the challenge of creative writing was always there,” he told me in the course of a recent interview, “lurking under the surface of a dull, stilted newsman’s prose.” So, more than a decade after departing Ireland’s “paper of record,” Brady, then in his early 50s, decided to switch gears. And begin killing people—at least in fiction.
The result was A June of Ordinary Murders, a meticulously composed, wholly consuming historical mystery that reached bookstores in Ireland in 2012, but is only this month due for U.S. release. Brady’s yarn casts readers back to June 1887, in Dublin, a city preparing—with more than a modicum of trepidation and resistance—to help commemorate Queen Victoria’s first half-century on the British throne. At the time, Ireland was simmering with unrest, both civil (relating to stresses among rural tenant farmers) and political. Authorities in the capital were concerned that Irish independence activists might incite trouble, perhaps of the violent sort, to protest their country’s protracted rule by a “foreign monarch.” Those dissidents were especially incensed that Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor (who would soon be entangled in a male brothel scandal and die in an influenza pandemic, then much later be rumored as a suspect in the Jack the Ripper slayings) was journeying to Dublin as the queen’s representative during its Golden Jubilee festivities.
“The Jubilee became the focus for extraordinary political tension in Ireland,” says Brady, now 66. “Those loyal to Britain wanted to celebrate, while those who believed in Irish nationalism opposed any acknowledgment of Victoria’s long reign. She had sat on the throne while the Great Famine [1845-1852] ravaged the country. A million died and two million were driven out by hunger to America, Britain, Australia and elsewhere.”
Anxieties were exacerbated further by an oppressive heat wave that had settled over Dublin that June, souring the municipal ambiance as “the human waste that accumulated in thousands of dry lavatories baked and stank in the heat.”
Amid all of this, Brady summons members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) to Phoenix Park, an expansive walled reserve west of the town center, to look into a discovery of two corpses. The deceased appear to be a slightly built man wearing attire of “indifferent quality,” and a boy “perhaps 8 or 9 years old.” Neither victim bears any sort of identification, but both have been shot, and the elder casualty’s face is horribly mutilated, which will make it still more difficult to put a name to him. This isn’t exactly a favorable beginning for a murder inquiry, but Det. Sgt. Joseph Swallow—who, at 42, has already spent more than two decades with the city’s constabulary—figures he can get a decent launch on things with help from Dr. Henry Lafeyre, Dublin’s forensic examiner and a former medical officer who served with a mounted police unit in South Africa. (Lafeyre calls himself “a copper with a stethoscope.”)
Brady describes Joe Swallow, a weary plainclothes detective with the DMP’s G Division, as “a conflicted man, both personally and politically. I think he would have been fairly typical of his generation and class. He has become a policeman by default, having drunk his way out of medical school. But paradoxically, it turns out, he’s quite good at sleuthing.”
Not that his early findings in this tale bear out such a strength. For it isn’t long after the Phoenix Park remains are sent to Lafeyre for post-mortem examination, that the doctor realizes Swallow and his fellow “G-men” have seriously misidentified them. Rather than two males, perhaps father and son, they’re actually the bodies of a boy…and a deliberately disguised woman of perhaps 25 to 30 years. (“It’s not a mistake that a trained physician will easily make when the clothing is cut away,” Lafeyre intones sarcastically.) Who could have committed such heinous attacks, and for what purpose? Short of anything resembling tangible clues, and with the local press excoriating G Division because of Swallow’s evident inability to differentiate a dead women from a lifeless gent, the detective can only hope to reassure his superior, Det. Chief Supt. John Mallon, that these slayings are “ordinary.” As Brady writes: “G Division divided all crime into two categories: ‘special’ or “ordinary.’ The absolute priority was ‘special crime’—anything with an element of politics or subversion. ‘Ordinary crime’ might be serious, but it took second place to security or politically related issues. Swallow’s instinct told him that these were ‘ordinary murders.’ ”
In light of the newspapers’ unwanted attention on their failures, Swallow and Mallon find meager relief in another well-publicized demise during the same week, that of “Pisspot” Ces Downes, an older, colorful and extraordinarily influential woman with many mysteries in her past, but a 20-year reputation for criminal interests that “ran virtually the entire gamut of the underside of Dublin life.”
She received stolen property. She operated rings of “dippers”—young girls who picked pockets in the streets or at race meetings. She funded pitch and toss schools. She staked cash for the illicit distilling of alcohol. Although it could never be established that she was directly involved in prostitution, she readily went bail for girls from the red-light districts around Montgomery Street or in the courts and alleys off Grafton Street whenever the DMP felt it was necessary, for appearances’ sake, to make some arrests.
Dublin’s reporters don’t give up the chase after the Phoenix Park story, but they are distracted to a degree by Downes’ passing. That’s particularly true since her death leaves a hole in the hierarchy of local criminaldom, one that her lieutenants seem anxious to fill by peaceful means, if possible…or aggressive ones, if necessary.
Brady does an outstanding job here of mixing historical facts with fiction, and making us care about both. He introduces readers to the issues energizing Dubliners of the late 1880s as well as the divisions sharply separating the city’s prosperous and poorer classes. The stink arising from that summer’s heat wave fairly wafts from the pages, the farther one delves into this book, fusing with the potent fragrances of cheap intoxicants. The author explains that the biggest surprise to him, when he researched Dublin in the waning days of the Victorian era, was “probably the extent to which alcohol played a part in the lives of working people. There were very few comforts other than drink, so when anybody had a few shillings to spare they generally invested in the oblivion of alcohol.”
Although Joe Swallow, a Catholic copper of country stock whose significant advancement is unlikely in a police force led predominately by Protestant Brits, and Henry Lafeyre, a notably forward-thinking doctor (fingerprinting and facial-reconstruction science both figure into his techniques), are fictional figures, 55-year-old John Mallon turns out to have been a real-life character. He cemented his reputation as a dogged policeman on the rise by heading up an investigation into the 1882 assassinations (also in the Phoenix Park area) of two British politicians charged with Ireland’s administration. And Mallon does what he can in A June of Ordinary Murders to give Swallow cover as the plainclothesman foils an Irish nationalists’ plot that could cause real difficulties for his younger sister, a teacher in training; grudgingly takes on a parallel probe into the killing of a female house servant of about the same age as the dead woman in Phoenix Park; displays his manifest disrespect for a glaringly incompetent copper apparently destined to achieve high rank; and runs afoul of shadowy government agents bent on destroying Swallow’s career if the detective persists in plumbing a prominent official’s connection to the recent slayings.
A June of Ordinary Murders reminds me somewhat of Kevin McCarthy’s Peeler (2010), in that both are Ireland-set historical police procedurals, judiciously embroidered with period details and starring sleuths who are comfortable with the moral compromises necessary to achieve even modest wins against societal corruption. If author Brady puts a foot wrong anywhere in this story, it’s only in the occasional scene that strives for cinematic thrills over steady investigative pacing, and in his portrayal of widowed public-house proprietor Maria Walsh, Swallow’s much younger lover, whose tendency toward quarrelsomeness makes one wonder why he’d risk his job for their relationship.
I’m pleased to hear that Conor Brady already has a sequel to this novel, titled The Eloquence of the Dead, lined up for release in the States in 2016. “The second story,” he says, “opens with the murder of a pawn broker in his shop at Lamb Alley, near Dublin Castle. When Swallow investigates he uncovers a massive fraud on Her Majesty’s exchequer, organized around the purchase scheme through which tenant farmers are buying out their holdings from the big landlords. The story brings him to London where he gets an attractive job offer from Scotland Yard. And a possible rival to Maria comes on the scene.”
Like Brady’s first mystery, this second one sounds anything but ordinary.