A Literary Take on a Notorious Crime Finds More Doubt Than Truth

A THREAD OF VIOLENCE: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder, by Mark O’Connell

In “The Silent Woman” (1994), her merciless dissection of literary biography (that genre in which “the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world”), Janet Malcolm identified a version of biographical narrative — the kind she herself preferred — that doesn’t mesh with readers’ expectations of authorial certainty. “What the reader has usually heard in the text,” she writes, “is the sound of doubt, the sound of a crack opening in the wall of the biographer’s self-assurance.”

Doubt is the dominant key of Mark O’Connell’s exhilarating “A Thread of Violence,” a probing portrait of one of the most notorious murderers in recent Irish history. The author of the prizewinning “To Be a Machine” (2018), on “transhumanist” efforts to extend life via technology, O’Connell, who lives in Dublin, spent the Covid years trying to make sense of the lurid case of Malcolm Macarthur, a dapper man-about-town who killed two blameless strangers in 1982 and helped bring down the Irish government in the process.

Macarthur was released from a life sentence in 2012, and O’Connell managed to win his trust (in ways that may remind readers of Joe McGinniss’s approach in “Fatal Vision,” the target of Janet Malcolm’s 1989 book “The Journalist and the Murderer”). O’Connell recorded hours of conversations with Macarthur in an effort to pierce what he calls the “sullen and persistent silence” at the heart of the case — not who did it, which was clear from the start, but why. O’Connell’s epigraph, drawn from Camus’s “The Stranger,” warns readers that the case won’t be cracked with a Holmesian revelation: “Here we have a perfect reflection of this entire trial: Everything is true and nothing is true!”

A self-styled aristocrat who favored silk bow ties and soft linen jackets, Macarthur inherited enough money to spend his daytime hours in academic libraries reading up on arcane subjects and his evenings in stylish pubs picking up the tab. “His life,” O’Connell remarks, “was a project of refined hedonism.” When the money ran short, he embarked on what a detective called “a frenzy of tomfoolery.” He resolved to rob a bank, and to that end stole a car from a nurse sunbathing in Phoenix Park. “Is this for real?” she asked him, before he bludgeoned her with a hammer. Macarthur then shot a farmer in the face with the farmer’s own shotgun, which Macarthur had arranged to buy. Armed with the gun, he demanded cash from a rich American from his social set — easier than the bank heist he had vaguely envisioned — who fled the scene.

As the police closed in on him, Macarthur approached an old friend, Patrick Connolly, who, suspecting nothing amiss, offered him the use of his apartment fronting the Irish Sea. Connolly happened to be the Irish attorney general. As O’Connell sums up the unlikely scenario: “The Irish government’s most senior legal official had his housekeeper prepare the spare room for his friend, a man who had just days previously murdered two strangers, and who had that very evening botched an armed robbery at the home of an acquaintance.”

It didn’t help Connolly’s subsequent reputation that he left for a vacation in New York City after being questioned by the police. “Irish Biggie Flees Here After Slay Scandal” ran the headline in The New York Post, a few days before Connolly resigned. Connolly’s boss, Charles Haughey, a prime minister with a taste for the high life, was also tarnished by the scandal; by the end of 1982 his government had been voted out of office.

When Macarthur’s lawyers ruled out an insanity defense, he pleaded guilty “with not a word of testimony spoken.” That missing testimony is what O’Connell hoped to elicit. Macarthur’s crimes are well known in Ireland, amplified by a flurry of books, documentaries and reimaginings, including John Banville’s novel “The Book of Evidence.” At one point, Macarthur quotes a line from Banville that he attributes to “some columnist,” having evidently “confused himself,” O’Connell notes, “and in a more literal fashion than he normally did — with a fiction based on his life.” To American readers, Macarthur may seem like a mash-up of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley (the fastidious psychopath whom O’Connell mentions more than once) and Jeffrey Epstein (attracted like Macarthur to celebrity intellectuals and powerful men).

The deft narrative of “A Thread of Violence” is constructed around several coincidences. O’Connell’s grandparents lived in the apartment building next door to Connolly’s, and may have been questioned by the police concerning Macarthur’s whereabouts. For his Ph.D. at Trinity College, O’Connell wrote about Banville’s novels. Macarthur’s “reputation as an intellectual loafer” also felt uncannily familiar: “I knew people like this; I was perhaps one of them.” Such “proximity of various kinds,” as O’Connell calls these connections, gives his book an oddly fated feel, as though scripted by some cosmic novelist. When Macarthur shows up at a public event where Banville is slated to speak, O’Connell takes this conjunction, half-jokingly, as evidence “for my longstanding belief that reality was a niche subgenre of fiction.”

O’Connell periodically interrupts his narration with what he calls “meta ruminations” on such matters as truth and doubt. Eschewing the novelistic conventions of so many true-crime accounts, with their shifting points of view and you-were-there immediacy, he adopts instead the skeptical tone of the essayist. He is sometimes seduced by his own metaphors, including an overreliance on Borgesian labyrinths. Locked-down Dublin is “a labyrinth composed entirely of dead ends.” Conversations with Macarthur, in which the killer hides behind the passive voice and the second person, are “labyrinthine.” And as it becomes clear that Macarthur is that most elusive of liars, one who believes his own inventions, O’Connell remarks that he himself “had wandered into a labyrinth of endlessly ramifying fictions.”

O’Connell’s quarry, the Minotaur in his narrative maze, is a satisfying explanation of why Macarthur did what he did. Was it the “thread of violence” his mother suffered in her marriage to a “sadistic” husband, witnessed by her son? Was it the son’s envy of his more privileged peers, who attended posh private schools while he — after a slump in the family finances — was consigned to the local Christian Brothers? “The route that he followed toward murder was determined by a cartography of class,” O’Connell writes.

Ultimately, O’Connell finds all such explanations wanting. There was no reason to kill two innocent people to get a car and a gun. There were better ways to acquire money. “Beneath the cold rationale of the crimes,” O’Connell suggests, “was something frenzied and nonsensical, reducible to neither financial nor psychological expedience.” Amid all the months of talk, the sullen and persistent silence endures.

Which brings us back to that epigraph from Camus. O’Connell admits that he wanted a “reckoning” from Macarthur, “wanted him to be Raskolnikov,” wanted him to realize, with O’Connell’s patient assistance, what he had done, and why. But there was to be no such reckoning. As O’Connell concedes in this brilliant and rigorously honest book, Macarthur “had failed me as a character. He had denied me the satisfaction of an ending.”

Christopher Benfey is the Mellon professor emeritus of English at Mount Holyoke. He is the author of “If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years.”

A THREAD OF VIOLENCE: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder | By Mark O’Connell | 288 pp. | Doubleday | $29

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