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1 July 2023

Making a murderer

Mark O’Connell’s portrait of a notorious Irish killer becomes a study of the desire to turn reality into fiction.

By Lola Seaton

Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (1990) is, among other things, a polemic assailing several kinds of naivety about the dubious relationship between a journalist and their subject. Moral naivety, most famously: what journalists do – gain and then betray their subject’s confidence – is “morally indefensible”, as Malcolm puts it in her notorious opening sentence. But the book also takes aim at literary naivety. Journalists are like novelists with their hands tied by reality: they need good characters just as badly but, since they can’t invent them, they must find them “ready-made”, scouted from “a small group of people of a certain rare, exhibitionistic, self-fabulising nature”. The journalist themselves, meanwhile, “is almost pure invention”: “Superman” to the real writer’s “Clark Kent”, an “over-reliable narrator”.

Mark O’Connell’s alter-ego is more like Clark Kent getting stuck into Superman’s assignments. “I’m very unskilled as a reporter”, O’Connell once said in an interview with the Paris Review, and he presents himself in his books not as an objective observer but as an affably flawed participant. His first two books, To Be a Machine (2017) and Notes from an Apocalypse (2020), are records of miscellaneous adventures around the world: the first among adherents of transhumanism, who hope to use technology to defy death, the second among the mavericks preparing for the end of the world. Off-duty, O’Connell is seen doom-scrolling, suffering a hangover he feels he doesn’t deserve, playing with his young son, talking to his therapist. Out in the field, he can be distractible, sentimental, occasionally petty.

In the first of several cleverly reflexive passages in To Be a Machine, he describes with comic rigour a futurist at a pub salvaging a pistachio he’d dropped down the neck of his shirt. After the man commits the faux pas of implying journalists will be usurped by AI like everyone else, O’Connell “resolved… to include a description in my book of his retrieving a dropped pistachio from inside his expensive shirt”. In an account of a road trip with transhumanist US presidential hopeful Zoltan Istvan and a “willowy” young volunteer named Roen Horn, O’Connell – “a little light-headed” from alcohol and weed – feels “a strange tenderness” for Horn, “an almost fraternal instinct of protection, very much at odds with any properly journalistic imperatives”.

For O’Connell, eschewing professionalism is a means of edging the books away from detached reportage towards a more involved and literary form of journalism. O’Connell insists on – plays up, one sometimes suspects – his affinities with his subjects, a tendency more pronounced in each book: if To Be a Machine arose from “a basic sympathy” with the premise of transhumanism, Notes from an Apocalypse began in a personal crisis: “a consuming apprehension of imminent catastrophe”.

O’Connell’s new book, A Thread of Violence, is at once his most classically journalistic and his most personal, as well as his most ambitious and accomplished. A true crime story about a murderer named Malcolm Macarthur, convicted of killing two people in 1982, it is an enquiry into “for want of a better term, evil”. In Ireland, Macarthur is “as close to a household name as it is possible for a murderer to be”; the story “has been told endlessly and luridly”, but never satisfactorily, O’Connell insists. Macarthur, an aristocratic amateur scholar, found himself running out of money and, horrified by the prospect of giving up his life of genteel leisure, planned to commit an armed robbery, for which he needed a car and a gun. He ended up, in two senseless acts of sadism and self-sabotage, murdering their owners. It is this baffling surplus of violence which O’Connell hopes to explain by talking to Macarthur.

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A Thread of Violence marks a striking departure. O’Connell’s previous books are about people haunted by the future – who want to evade the endings it brings, or threatens to – but the new book is haunted by the past. Where the earlier books, despite their angsty theme, are often warmly comic and sentimental, O’Connell’s tone in A Thread of Violence is sober, sometimes sombre. And instead of featuring a heterogeneous cast and far-flung locations A Thread of Violence is a study of one man, in one place: Dublin, where O’Connell lives. He was drawn to the case by unsettling “proximity of various kinds”: Macarthur was arrested in the apartment complex where O’Connell’s grandparents lived; O’Connell wrote his PhD on John Banville, whose Freddie Montgomery trilogy is partly based on Macarthur’s life; and O’Connell regularly encounters Macarthur, freed in 2012 and now in his seventies, on the streets of Dublin.

It was after one of these sightings that O’Connell had what he calls “a realisation: that I was going to write about Macarthur”. This elision of intention – a dawning rather than a decision – seems to echo the mysterious hardening of Macarthur’s resolve to kill, as though there is something murderous about writing about another person. The book opens with O’Connell’s atmospherically analogue efforts to hunt Macarthur  down (loitering around Macarthur’s haunts, consulting a phone book). Eventually O’Connell approaches  him in the street and convinces him to talk. Although the book goes on to recount Macarthur’s childhood and to reconstruct the murders, the book is as much about the complexities of telling the story of a life as it is about Macarthur himself. Its real drama lies in O’Connell’s attempt – ultimately unsuccessful, by his own account – to get to the bottom of Macarthur’s character and to explain his burst of savagery 40 years ago.

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A Thread of Violence reads like a book about a journalist and a murderer written in the disabused aftermath of Janet Malcolm’s influential monograph. Its narrator has absorbed Malcolm’s insights, moral and literary – perhaps a little too thoroughly. Whereas the journalist in Malcolm’s book befriended the murderer whom he then betrayed, O’Connell has “no desire to manipulate” Macarthur “by seeming to be his friend”. He is at once reserved – adopting a formal “pose” to keep their relations from becoming too familiar – and upfront, repeatedly reminding Macarthur that he might “feel wrong-footed or even betrayed by what I wrote”. In Malcolm’s analysis, it is the killer’s shortcomings as a character – his seeming “simply a guy like the rest of us” – that compels the journalist to resort to lurid caricature, “an attempt to fashion a Raskolnikov out of a Jeffrey MacDonald” (the real-life killer at the centre of The Journalist and the Murderer).

For O’Connell, Macarthur is the “self-fabulising” creature of a journalist’s dreams: “His entire identity, it seemed – the apparel, the accent, the endless days of cultivated leisure – was rooted in a fiction.” Yet, as though with Malcolm’s admonition in his ears, he ultimately admits that Macarthur wasn’t what he wanted him to be: “Raskolnikov in the final pages of Crime and Punishment, confessing his guilt.” “In failing to confront the enormity of his sins – in failing to be annihilated by it – Macarthur had failed me as a character. He had denied me the satisfaction of an ending.”

Except that this very failure provides O’Connell with an arguably more sophisticated ending. This is a postmodern tale, whose inconclusive nature – there is no “ultimate truth” of Macarthur’s life – can at times seem a foregone conclusion, and a little premeditated, as though O’Connell is not so much conceding defeat as courting it. Is Macarthur as enigmatic as O’Connell needed him to be for his suavely thwarted portrait?

[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

O’Connell’s intelligent, in many ways honourable self-probing gives the book an engaging immediacy. But at times it fogs up the pane through which we might have gained a clearer view of Macarthur. Janet Malcolm’s virtues as a portraitist arose in part from the charged setting conjured by her inscrutable persona. The Superman she fashioned for herself had the superheroic nerve, borrowed from psychoanalysis, to behave as if interpretation only travels in one direction.

Whereas O’Connell is interested not only in Macarthur but in “what it was about me that made me want to write about him”, Malcolm registers her own thoughts and feelings only for what they reveal about her subject. O’Connell’s interpretations, by contrast, come hedged by self-scrutiny. Considering the significance of the books in Macarthur’s possession on his arrest, O’Connell writes: “I am succumbing here, of course, to the temptation to encounter reality as a fiction, to read it as though I were a critic.” O’Connell’s self-questioning narrator is a more humane presence than Malcolm’s, but he rarely provides the wicked satisfactions of brazen scrutiny and barbed insinuation at which Malcolm excelled.

Noting that Macarthur has an odd habit of wrapping stuff in plastic – his furniture, a shovel he carried on his murder spree – O’Connell “can’t but wonder what, if anything, this business of wrapping things in black plastic is all about”. Would Malcolm have brooked the possibility that this unnerving detail might be meaningless? Just as every seemingly random slip can be coaxed into intelligibility in the psychoanalyst’s room, the exchanges dramatised by Malcolm’s journalistic persona seem to unfold in a pristine atmosphere of total significance. This sense of a world rich in symbolic meaning is a distinguishing feature, one might say a distinguishing fiction, of fiction. O’Connell’s scrupulous “if anything” is like a valve, letting some of the novelistic air out of the book, and reminding us of the drabber, disordered reality pressing in from outside, where some things don’t mean anything.

A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder
Mark O’Connell
Granta, 304pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia