Irish former newspaper editor Conor Brady’s story of getting his first novel into print is pretty much guaranteed to stir jealousy among other writers who’ve spent long years arduously toiling over their manuscripts, fighting uncooperative scenes down to the mat and polishing their prose to a blinding sheen before they could convince an editor to so much as notice their work–and not promptly reject it.
“I really put it together over a period of, I suppose, two or three years, maybe,” Brady told the Irish online magazine Writing.ie. “I didn’t sit down at nine o’clock every morning and say, ‘I’m going to do this now until lunchtime,’ or something. What I did was, I did it weekends, take your laptop on an airplane with you, do a bit on holidays. And before I knew it, I had a story and I had a plot and I had characters. And I didn’t quite know what to do with them.” A friend pointed him at Dublin publisher New Island, which quickly agreed to take on Brady’s yarn, and then after several months of reshaping and editing the work (“because it was a first draft, and rather scrappy and rather untidy in many ways”), it was finally fed into the pipeline for release. That novel, a densely composed and captivating mystery set in 1887 Dublin, titled A June of Ordinary Murders–the first installment in a new series starring Detective Sergeant Joseph Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP)–reached bookstores in Ireland back in 2012. But only now is it set to be published in America by Minotaur Books.
Brady had an advantage on most first-time novelists: he’d spent a decade and a half as editor of The Irish Times in Dublin, and was well known for his knowledge of Ireland’s policing history. Nonetheless, A June of Ordinary Murders ultimately had to win over readers and critics alike, as it seems to have done. Declan Burke, writing in Brady’s old broadsheet, opined that this author “weaves a police procedural that does full justice to the complex nature of the social, political, and criminal labyrinth that was Dublin in the summer of 1887. He paints a vivid picture of the city as it bakes beneath the unrelenting sun, employing Joe Swallow’s sharp eye and the character’s ambitions as an amateur painter to deftly sketch both its landmarks and its less salubrious corners.” Kirkus Reviews adds, “Brady’s powerful first mystery novel is evocative of the period. The many aspects of life in 19th-century Dublin are cleverly woven through a baffling mystery.”
With today’s posting of my latest column for Kirkus, I add my voice to this mix. Here’s my brief sketch of Ordinary Murders’ opening:
… 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.”)
After consuming A June of Ordinary Murders at a rather breakneck pace, I contacted Conor Brady’s publisher and requested an interview with him. Some of the author’s thoughtful responses to my e-mailed questions managed to find homes in today’s Kirkus column, but, sadly, most didn’t fit. So I am presenting our complete exchange below, which covers Brady’s journalism career, his family’s law-enforcement connections, his research into Dublin’s Victorian era, and what challenges he next has in store for Joe Swallow.
J. Kingston Pierce: Where were you born?
Conor Brady: In Dublin, in 1949. But that was a technicality. My parents were living in Tullamore, a county town in the Irish midlands. It’s famous as the home of Tullamore Dew, the mellow whiskey beloved of Joe Swallow. My mother wasn’t a young mum. She was 43. I had two older sisters, but they had left home by the time I was born. So it was decided she should go to the National Maternity Hospital in the capital to see me into the world. My father was the superintendent of police in the midlands area.
(Left) Author Conor Brady. Photo by Bryan Meade.
JKP: And what were your growing-up years like? What are your fondest and most horrifying memories of boyhood?
CB: Contrary to many Irish childhood memories, mine are the happiest. I grew up secure in a loving home. My memories are of warm summer days with my friends at the town swimming pool, of walking country fields with my Irish Terrier, “Rusty,” and of playing golf with my mother, Amy.
My most horrifying memory is the death of my father when I was 13. He had had a number of small strokes, but I never thought he would die. I remember the screaming of my mother in the garden that night when her friend, our local doctor, came to tell her that her beloved husband was gone.
JKP: So how did you wind up in journalism?
CB: After my father’s death I went to boarding school at Roscrea College [in County Tipperary]. It was run by the monks of the Cistercian order, or Trappists. It was a very positive experience and I was very happy there. It’s still operating with 180 students. It’s set in beautiful farmland and there are still 15 monks in the community. There was a student newspaper in the school and I got involved and I loved the buzz of it all. Later at University College Dublin, I got involved with the student newspaper, Campus UCD News, and was editor in my second year. These were exciting times for student journalism. We’re talking the 1960s with student power on the move in the U.S., in Europe, and even in Ireland.
JKP: Am I correct that you later went on to spend more than a decade and a half as editor of The Irish Times?
CB: I did 16 years as editor and a previous 14 years in a variety of roles, from reporter on the streets of Belfast, to covering the war in Rhodesia, to night editor, to features editor, to deputy editor. I was exposed to every aspect of newspaper journalism, plus a couple of stints on radio and TV.
JKP: Before you went to the Times, what sorts of other post-college journalism jobs did you hold?
CB: I did four years at The Irish Times after graduating from college. Then I left to edit the Garda Review, the monthly magazine of the Irish police. I went from there to RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, where I worked on a prime-time news program as a reporter/presenter. Then I edited a broadsheet Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Tribune.
JKP: What would you say now was your principal accomplishment as editor of The Irish Times?
CB: Undoubtedly, our support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. We committed the paper to the search for a solution that would eschew violence. Some Irish media were very skeptical of the peace process to the point of hostility. I put the weight of The Irish Times behind the peacemakers. I’ll always be glad I did.
JKP: It sounds as if your later years at the Times were fraught with financial problems and staff layoffs. Were those the cause of your departure from the paper, or were there additional factors involved?
CB: Not really. I had stayed longer than I intended anyway. I had already told my senior staff that my editorship was coming to an end. And I stayed to see a restructuring in place that involved quite a few voluntary redundancies and so on. I thought it best that I should do those things, leaving my successor as editor to make a fresh, clean start. The problem was top-fold. The organization had become rather bloated, and not just the editorial departments. Too many time-servers and too much feather-bedding. Then the mini-recession of post-9/11 struck and revenues dropped.
JKP: Had you been thinking about becoming a fiction writer before you left the newspaper, or did you only decide upon that future after you were out of work?
CB: I didn’t start writing the Joe Swallow stories until I was perhaps 10, 12 years out of The Irish Times. I did a few things in the interim, including two years as a visiting professor at John Jay College [of Criminal Justice], City University of New York. But the challenge of creative writing was always there, lurking under the surface of a dull, stilted newsman’s prose.
JKP: So tell me: What was the hardest thing about transitioning from writing non-fiction to penning fiction?
CB: That’s a really penetrating question. News journalists are conditioned to being factual, detailed, and detached. Or at least they should be. Creative writing requires quite different impulses and talents. And I found that the former skills-set militated against the latter. I had tried to put too much detail in and I found that I simply had to pull most of it out again in order to achieve the free-flowing narrative one needs for a novel.
JKP: It sounds, though, as if your research talents came in handy.
CB: Researching this period of Irish history and Irish society is relatively easy. This was the new era of the newspaper industry, with big circulation numbers. Reporters covered everything from the police courts to society weddings. So the raw material is all there in the newspaper archives.
JKP: What was it that made you choose 1887 as your time-frame for A June of Ordinary Murders? Were you attracted primarily by Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee?
CB: The Jubilee became the focus for extraordinary political tension in Ireland. 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 ravaged the country. A million died and two million were driven out by hunger to America, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere.
Detective Joe Swallow’s usual haunt: Dublin Castle’s Lower Yard, as it appeared in the late 19th century.
JKP: While conducting your research for Ordinary Murders, what was the most unusual thing you learned about life in Dublin or Ireland during the 1880s?
CB: 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.
JKP: You make it sound in your book as if the Dublin Metropolitan Police force was rampant with divisions between the Catholic Irish officers and their Protestant English superiors. I kept expecting there to be more fireworks as a result of those differences. But was 1887 still too early for such disparities to become a problem?
CB: The tensions were there. But as in any disciplined force they were generally kept in check. The rank-and-file Catholic members did feel themselves cut off from the higher ranks. John Mallon, Swallow’s boss, was a real-life character. He was the exception that proved the rule. The son of a Catholic farmer from County Armagh, he went on to head the detective division—G Division—and attained the rank of assistant commissioner.
JKP: You published a book in 2000 titled Guardians of the Peace, a history of Irish policing from the 1920s onward. How did law enforcement in Ireland change from Swallow’s time to the Jazz Age?
CB: The changes were significant at one level, but minimal at another. Regime change is often accompanied by changes in visible, outward symbols of authority such as policing arrangements. So the government of the new Irish state in 1922 decided to disband the old Royal Irish Constabulary [RIC] and replace it with a new force, the Garda Síochána or “Guardians of the Peace.” It operated as an unarmed force. Dublin’s separate police force, the Dublin Metropolitan Police, continued until 1925 but was then amalgamated with the Garda. Outwardly, this was all new. But it was essentially the same administrative model as before, with a police chief appointed by government and accountable to central authority. This was quite different to the system in Britain where police forces were locally accountable.
JKP: What’s this I hear about your grandfather having been a copper? Is that how your interest in the history of Irish policing began?
CB: My grandfather, William Brady, was in the RIC. But he died 35 years before I was born, so I know very little about him. His record shows he was a fairly typical “ranker.” A Catholic, his family operated a small public house in Cavan. He achieved no promotion, no distinctions, and no reprimands.
My father had a more successful police career. He had been a teacher of English and French before the 1919-1921 War of Independence. He took neither side in the civil war that followed, so he was well placed for a senior rank when the new state established its own police. He was appointed a superintendent at 24 years of age.
JKP: Let’s talk a little about Sergeant Swallow. He’s a rather extraordinary figure, a 42-year-old Catholic man with an unfortunate fondness for drink, whose family has operated a public house in County Kildare for generations. Yet he chose to make a living keeping the peace in Dublin. Why did you settle on him as your ideal protagonist?
CB: Like most fictional characters, I suspect, Swallow is an amalgam of various individuals a writer will have encountered. He is 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.
JKP: He’s also carrying on a relationship with a younger public-house proprietress named Maria Walsh, despite the DMP frowning on such relationships. How do you see Maria Walsh’s role in this story?
CB: Again, I think Maria would be fairly typical of women of her generation and class. Most women had no career options. They could marry or become a nun. Most clerical or secretarial work was still done by men. The licensed trade was one of the few areas in which a woman could make a business career. So Maria is quite a strong character, if a little dull and unexciting. She’s a grounded woman and a realist. Her role, among other things, is to keep Swallow grounded too.
JKP: There’s a great deal of early forensic science employed in Ordinary Murders, thanks to your inclusion of the character Dr. Henry Lafeyre, the Dublin medical examiner. Can I presume that you did considerable research into the subject before you sat down to write your first novel? And was that research conducted in books or among modern experts in the field?
CB: I went no further than the definitive Manual of Forensic Jurisprudence, by Professor A.S. [Alfred Swaine] Taylor of Edinburgh (1893 edition). Taylor has it all. The symptoms of poisoning, drowning, asphyxiation, etc. Henry Lafeyre has, of course, studied under Taylor at Edinburgh.
JKP: Although it’s comfortably rolled into your story, you offer a considerable amount of Irish history and culture in this novel–much of which would not be familiar to the majority of American readers. Did you have to do some editing of your novel after Minotaur Books bought it, to make it easier for readers in the States to understand?
CB: No, happily not. I guess the editors at Minotaur took the view that if readers were going to go through this story they’d simply have to make an effort to take in the historical context. And it’s not that complicated, really. Moreover, I think a great many Americans would have a basic understanding of the historic difficulties in the relation between Ireland and Britain.
JKP: A June of Ordinary Murders was originally published in Ireland back in 2012. A year later saw the release of a sequel, The Eloquence of the Dead. I am delighted to hear that Eloquence will also be released in the States, probably in early 2016. Can you tell us something about the story you offer in that second Swallow yarn?
CB: The second story opens with the murder of a pawnbroker 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.
The third story, A Hunt in Winter, brings us into 1888, which was the year that Jack the Ripper did his bloody work in the east end of London. Also in that year, a commission of inquiry in London examined alleged links between the great Irish parliamentary leader, [Charles Stewart]_Parnell, and political violence. The two themes intertwine in what I think is a good yarn.
JKP: When you’re not writing crime and mystery fiction, which other authors in the genre do you enjoy reading?
CB: My favorite is the Brother Cadfael series, set in the 13th century in the Benedictine Abbey of Shrewsbury, in England. The author, Ellis Peters, is now deceased. She wrote, I think, some 20 stories about Cadfael. He’s a monk of Shrewsbury but also a man of action, having been a crusader who has known military action.
JKP: Are you surprised by the rapid and fairly recent growth of Irish crime fiction as a subgenre?
CB: Not really. The Irish are an imaginative people. And many celebrated Irish writers have touched on criminal themes in the past. Some of what’s coming out is really good. But some is also merely imitative and predictable.
JKP: If you could have written any book–fiction or non-fiction–that doesn’t currently carry your byline, what would it have been?
CB: I’d like to have written The Day of the Jackal , by Frederick Forsyth. It’s the perfect thriller, pacy, tightly written, and wonderfully evocative of the atmosphere of France in the troubled 1950s and 1960s. Besides, I’d also be very rich!
JKP: Finally, since you are a newspaper veteran, let me ask you this: We now live in an era of marked newspaper decline, perhaps also a period of decline for journalism in general. What do you think the costs are to society of such declines, and do you see the news media finding firmer roles for themselves in the near future?
CB: I’ve been very pessimistic for traditional news media, watching the collapse of the various business models that sustained them. But I’m starting to be a little more hopeful now. I think good journalism is reasserting itself. There’s an absolute torrent of drivel and posturing on the Internet, but I think people are starting to be a lot more discerning.