Time To Bring Back The Amateur Sleuth
Siobhan MacDonald on why she chose a taxi driver to solve the crime in The Bride Collector
The Irish Times, 27 July 2021
Fancy spending an hour or two in some squashy chair in the company of a detective? Ideally, with a gnarly, male investigator, a pint or three short of a smile, or with a kick-ass female investigator whose private life is a smörgåsbord of messy relationships? If the answer is yes, let me tell you, you’re not alone. I fancy it too.
Readers of crime fiction are in a bind when it comes to deciding which police procedural to choose. Nowadays, there’s a canon of high-calibre, gripping detective stories, many of them the creation of talented Irish authors.
Against this backdrop, may I suggest perhaps it’s time for a renaissance of the amateur sleuth? Time for a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and a grown-up, 21st-century Nancy Drew. Amateur sleuths are not bound by the constraints of a police force, can be unorthodox, and are allowed a greater degree of latitude in solving mysteries and crimes – in fiction at least.
In this golden age of podcasting, amateur sleuths are blazing a trail with a host of true-crime and mystery podcasts. Such podcasts typically draw listeners in by laying out the facts, mooting various theories, and often inviting listeners to contact the show with any information. They create the sense of a virtual crime-solving community. They speak to our inner sleuths as we’re invited to connect, to be part of a detecting experience from the comfort of our homes and cars.
For many listeners, season one of The New York Times’s Serial was their first introduction to the world of remote sleuthing. It investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. Listeners could form opinions about the guilt or otherwise of suspect, Adnan Syed, as he slipped in and out of the frame for Hae Min Lee’s murder. That investigation whetted the appetite for more real-life mysteries to solve.
The Vanished Podcast, hosted by Marissa Jones, focuses on stories of missing people. In podcast parlance it “takes a deep dive” into the story of a different missing person each week. Most episodes feature interviews with friends and family of missing persons, and sometimes local law enforcement. There’s an Irish dimension to two particular episodes devoted to women who disappeared in what the podcast calls Ireland’s Vanishing Triangle.
Consider the phenomenon of the Maddie podcast, launched in 2019. It cracked more than one million downloads within a month of launching and was the culmination of two years’ work on the Madeleine McCann mystery by Mark Saunokonoko of Nine News in Australia, advertised as “an investigation of the evidence which could make you question everything you thought you knew about the case.”
Many are still discovering the intriguing West Cork podcast, the brainchild of husband and wife team, journalist Sam Bungey and documentary producer Jennifer Forde. It is an examination of the murder of French film producer, Sophie Toscan du Plantier, who was killed at her holiday home near Schull, Co Cork, two days before Christmas 1996.
In recent years there’s been a slew of TV series enabling viewers to engage their detecting brain. I happened to be in the audience when Netflix’s Making A Murderer attorney, Dean Strang, came to Limerick’s UL to discuss the Steven Avery trial in September 2016. Along with attorney, Jerry Buting, Strang represented Avery in 2005 at his trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
I was also quick to secure a seat in Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick when David Rudolf, defence attorney for Michael Peterson in the Netflix series, The Staircase, discussed the case in November 2018. Reader beware, as what follows may contain a spoiler. Peterson was convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson, on December 9th, 2001. This intriguing case took many twists and turns, and critically begged the question, “Was Kathleen Peterson’s death an accident, or a planned murder?” In a packed, back room in Dolan’s, Rudolf offered insights into the case, including blood spatter evidence, along with the discovery of an incriminating blow poke, and the genesis of the owl theory. Again, the audience was able to connect with their inner sleuth when they were invited to ask questions.
A word of caution at this point. Amateur sleuthing can become addictive. Those of us that are fascinated by armchair detecting should take note of the tragic and salutary tale of true crime author, Michelle McNamara, whose fascination with the Golden State Killer consumed her every waking hour. It arguably was a contributing factor to the ill-health which cut short her life at age 46.
Viewers, listeners, and readers can identify with amateur detectives who are ordinary, relatable people. In my quest for a fictional sleuth, I wanted a character with a down-to-earth job that everyone understands. It posed a difficulty as my investigator couldn’t keep stumbling across bodies or dangerous situations coincidentally. As a comedian once said of Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, “Wherever that little white woman goes, somebody dies!” Another remarked that “giving this woman a plane ticket is like giving Manson parole”.
Ideas for characters can kick about for years, half-formed in the limbo of a writer’s mind, until they jump into life and gather form. It often occurred to me that the confines of a cab could be a dangerous place for two parties unknown to one another. This was tragically the case with two taxi drivers in late eighties and early nineties Ireland.
On a November night in 1997, taxi driver Eileen O’Shaughnessy was coming to the end of her shift. She told the dispatcher she was going to Claregalway, a town six miles north of Galway. The dispatcher assumed she was accompanied by a fare. Twenty minutes later, when the dispatcher tried to contact her, there was no answer. Eileen had been killed in her taxi, and her body left in a laneway as her killer drove the car back to Galway. Her murder remains unsolved.
And in July, 1989, Henry Hurley from Limerick was murdered in Co Clare. The 32-year-old was last seen alive near Setright’s Cross, in the company of two men. His body was found just over 12 hours later near his white Nissan Sunny in the Cratloe Hills. Like Eileen O’Shaughnessy, his murder too remains unsolved.
Some years ago, I myself had an alarming experience when I was threatened with abduction by a New York taxi driver. The Vietnam veteran wanted me to write his memoirs. Luckily, I managed to extricate myself from the situation.
Taxi drivers are privy to all sorts of information. It’s clear that they are also vulnerable, and the female taxi driver even more so. With this in mind, I made my protagonist Ellie Gillespie a taxi driver, hoping to position her as a realistic, relatable ‘finder-outer’ and an engaging, amateur sleuth. With luck, I’ve created a character that will chime with readers.