Tuesday 26 September 2017

Review: Fiction: The Dead Eight by Carlo Gebler

New Island, €11.99

In February 1941, a 39-year-old woman called Moll McCarthy was found murdered in a field close to the cottage where she lived with her children, situated a couple of miles from the village of New Inn in Co Tipperary. She had been shot twice, once in the face.

Gardai quickly arrested a neighbour, bachelor farm manager Harry Gleeson, and with almost equal speed he was charged, convicted and executed, despite the fact that the evidence linking him to the brutal killing was extremely flimsy.

Yet, even though most people in the neighbourhood, along with his junior counsel Sean MacBride, thought him entirely innocent of the crime, no one in his locality spoke up on his behalf.

In the last couple of decades the case has received some coverage -- by the late local historian Marcus Bourke in his 1993 book, Murder at Marlhill: Was Harry Gleeson Innocent?, through the RTÉ crime-reconstruction series Thou Shalt Not Kill in 1995 and, though more tangentially, by Evelyn Conlon in her 2003 novel Skin of Dreams, while former Tipperary South Fianna Fáil TD Noel Davern went so far as to seek a posthumous pardon for Gleeson.

And now the case is re-examined in the new novel by Carlo Gebler who, while inventing some characters and situations and eliding others, has used the basic available information to present a plausible rationale for Moll's death and Gleeson's conviction.

In Gebler's account, Moll is a strong-willed victim of circumstance, inheriting her mother's sexual fecklessness but retaining a proud sense of individuality as she raises a brood of children fathered by various men in the parish, none of whom want their transgressions known.

Most dangerous of these are local republican guerrilla JJ Spink and ruthless new garda sergeant Anthony Daly, both of whom have much to lose by a revelation of their relationship with Moll.

And so, even though Spink is the subversive whom Daly has been assigned by his Dublin superiors to capture, the latter finds himself in deadly, if unwilling, collusion with the former.

Gebler has already proved himself a master at transmuting historical facts into compelling fiction -- The Cure (1994) was based on the burning of Bridget Cleary and How to Murder a Man (1998) was rooted in the mid-19th-century enmity between land agents and republican terrorists.

And in this new novel he's just as adroit at creating psychological and dramatic suspense out of known facts.

Thus, even though we know from the outset that Moll is doomed, the author evokes her personality with such vividness that we come to dread both her inevitable fate and the manner of its achievement. And his skill at conveying the lethal attraction of Spink and the inherent psychopathy of Daly is such that the dread is intensified.

A couple of pivotal moments fail to persuade -- a jocular remark by Moll that turns Daly fatally against her doesn't seem to warrant his furious reaction, while the schooling of one of Moll's children into giving completely false evidence against Gleeson doesn't really convince.

But they're the only quibbles I have with a book so rich in characterisation, so expertly paced and so well-written that it works equally well as absorbing social history and page-turning thriller. -- John Boland

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