Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder: Whodunit parlour game casts a pall over West Cork
Decades after the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, her case exerts an ongoing - and growing - fascination. John Meagher talks to those close to proceedings
The 19th-century Gothic writer of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, once said that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world".
It is a celebrated line and one that Philip Boucher-Hayes reaches for when he thinks about the public fascination with the case of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the 39-year-old French national murdered at her holiday home in west Cork just before Christmas 1996.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
"There's something quite grotesque about it [the obsession with this particular murder case] and we'd need to catch ourselves on a little bit, to be honest," he says. "Think about how many detective TV programmes start with a dead, beautiful woman. It's a guaranteed ratings earner and it's a staple of crime fiction. There's an element of that to the story of Sophie Toscan du Plantier's murder but what's grotesque about it, obviously, is that this is real life."
The RTÉ journalist, who made a one-hour documentary, The Du Plantier Case, which aired in 2017, is well placed to explain just why this most gruesome of murders has resonated with the public in a way that other cases have not.
"What made this case unique right from the beginning was the moment from which Ian Bailey self-identified as a prime suspect," he says. "We haven't ever - to the best of my knowledge - had anybody else [in another case] coming up and acknowledging, 'Yes, I am the suspect'.
"It has given rise to something that is even more distasteful - the whodunit element of her murder has become something of a national parlour game. One of the unavoidable things when people know that you know a little bit about this case, is that they just can't stop themselves from giving you their opinion about who murdered her.
"It's grossly insensitive to Pierre-Louis [Sophie's son], to her brothers Bertrand and Stephane and to the sensitivities of the case because most of the speculation is just phenomenally misinformed and nonsense. But as long as the events we saw in Paris last week unfold and in the courts here, that fascination will continue."
Ian Bailey who still lives near Schull, just three 3km from Sophie's holiday home, was found to be guilty of Sophie's murder in a Paris court last week. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and an extradition warrant has been issued for his arrest. But the Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP] here had ruled that there is not enough evidence to prosecute him here and a Supreme Court ruling in 2012 blocked a previous extradition request.
Bailey's lawyer, Frank Buttimer, has dismissed the French ruling as a "grotesque injustice" and says it is his belief that the Supreme Court will uphold its decision and extradition will not be forced upon his client.
The guilty verdict in France is a development that has ensured the case remains foremost in the minds of the public. Sam Bungey and his partner Jennifer Forde made the acclaimed West Cork podcast series on the murder and the English couple are in France at present working on a second season.
"There's an interesting situation now where you have one democratic European country that says something completely different to another democratic European country about the same set of facts," Bungey says. "It's a case like none other and you've got two sides trying to keep it in the news for very different reasons. On the one hand, you've Sophie's family trying to get to the truth about what happened to her; then, on the other side, you've Ian Bailey trying to clear his name."
Bungey believes much of the intrigue surrounding the case rests on Bailey himself. "Frankly, it was Ian Bailey that drew us in initially to the case. We read about it in the paper. We came to Dublin to sit in on the trial that he was taking against the guards and the State. We introduced ourselves to him and then we went down to West Cork to meet him and on that first time there, he offered to take us out to the crime scene and, really quickly, it felt like we were in the middle of the story with all these questions. It felt like an amazingly peculiar situation."
West Cork became something of a word-of-mouth sensation - popular with Irish audiences who are all too familiar with the case and those who had never heard of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, Ian Bailey or the beautiful rugged part of Ireland that gives the series its name.
"Audible [the podcast and audiobook company owned by Amazon] keep their figures private," Bungey says, "but one indication about its popularity is that they announced that West Cork is their number one best-selling non-fiction title from 2018, so that tells you something."
West Cork tapped into a renewed global interest in true-crime stories, pioneered by the Serial podcast and Netflix's Making A Murderer. And the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case will reach yet more people when an as-yet-untitled feature-length documentary film is completed by Jim Sheridan.
The Oscar-nominated director is working closely with investigations journalist Donal MacIntyre and they have been filming Bailey and events in Paris over the past weeks. One figure loosely connected to the project says Sheridan has been working on the film for four years.
The journalist, Michael Sheridan, is also completing a book on the case. It has a working title of Murder He Wrote and centres on the author's long-held conviction that Bailey is responsible for Sophie's killing. "Had he not been found guilty in Paris last week, the 100,000 words I've written for the book would have had to be thrown in the bin," he says.
Sheridan - who co-wrote the screenplay for the first film on the slain Sunday Independent journalist Veronica Guerin, When the Sky Falls -previously penned a book on the Du Plantier story. Death in December was a best-seller when it was published in 2003.
The public, Sheridan says, were captivated by this story from the beginning. "The identity of the victim, her French connections, being married to a famous film producer… all those things made her different to other murder victims," he says. "She had bought a holiday home in a beautiful and remote part of West Cork and it was an area in which there hadn't been a murder since 1922, and that was the assassination of Michael Collins. That all gave it the sort of veneer you'd only ever find in crime fiction or on a TV series.
"And, don't forget, the actual murder itself was the most violent and savage murder of a woman ever recorded in this country, the details of which are relatively well known. It was a murder carried out by someone in a psychopathic rage."
UK-based Irish criminologist Emma Kelly says it was an especially shocking murder in the Ireland of 1990s. "It was before Facebook and social media and a time [on the island of Ireland] where pretty much all murder was sectarian.
"But this was completely different. And when a woman is killed, there is a greater likelihood that it will connect with people. The fact that she was married to somebody well known in France and that there was a showbiz element to it as well made it fit into a sort of Agatha Christie narrative. It felt like something you'd see on television, a whodunit."
Kelly recalls her parents' reaction to the murder. "They spoke about it all the time. There was this sense of shock about it, you know, the feeling that it's the sort of thing that doesn't happen to us - it happens in Britain and America."
A different case
The criminologist believes the case differentiated itself in other ways, too. "However common or uncommon murder is, about 95pc of them are cleared up really quick," she says. "It's usually someone known to the victim. Even by international standards this is unorthodox because you have someone who may or may not have done it wandering around."
Cork-based Irish Independent reporter Ralph Riegel has covered the story from the start. "When it comes to murder cases, there are a number of ingredients - if I can use that word - that generate public interest," he says. "The violence of the crime and the general circumstances. Is the person well known? Is the culprit caught? What are the legal developments in the case? And if you look at the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, it has every possible box ticked.
"Here was a very attractive woman, a high profile foreign national. Her husband is one of the best known people within the French film industry. It's a truly horrific killing in terms of the level of violence. It happened 48 hours before Christmas. It's in this idyllic spot which is also incredibly lonely on the side of a mountain in West Cork. Then, the chief suspect turns out to be a very handsome, colourful English national. He is never charged [in Ireland], but by his own definition he is the chief suspect.
"You have a French family who are pleading for justice. There's no charge here. They decide to pursue justice in France so you have a French prosecution for a crime that happened in Ireland. You've extradition requests, you've defamation actions, you've wrongful arrests. You've - unfortunately - a Garda investigation that had serious issues with it as well as problems with the pathologist attending the scene. There are issues to do with forensics and key witnesses changing their statements, so every possible element that adds to the drama and intrigue and confusion of the case happened."
Fight for justice
Riegel has consistently reported on Sophie's son Pierre-Louis's fight for justice: he and extended family members return each December to plead for new information. "He made a very powerful statement two weeks ago when he was in West Cork. He said, 'I have put my faith in you, the people of West Cork. Do not betray me, do not betray yourselves'.
"It's a case that pulls on the heartstrings and tweaks the conscience of the people here and the level of interest in it is such that I don't see it going away any time soon."
Meanwhile, Philip Boucher-Hayes feels the case has had a lasting negative impact on the part of Ireland in which Sophie Toscan du Plantier met her end. "It is one of the great tragedies of this case that so many people from Schull, Goleen and Toormore still feel it casts a pall over the places in which they live.
"Of course, a lot of people go to West Cork and the last thing they're thinking about is this nearly quarter-of-a-century-old murder, but there's quite a lot of people there that whenever this comes up can't help but feel that it is a black cloud over their community, and not just because it remains unsolved but because there is this outstanding allegation about somebody living among them."