Mark O’Connell’s portrait of the notorious murderer Malcolm Macarthur takes its title from the mouth of its subject. After questioning Macarthur about his childhood, reportedly tainted by neglect and violence, the journalist returns to Macarthur’s Dublin apartment to find his interviewee has prepared a statement. The killer then pridefully exculpates his parents: ‘People try to find explanations in the past by distorting the past. But there was never what you would call a thread of violence leading up to 1982. That was simply not the case.’
“As Macarthur is both defined and eclipsed by his strange crimes, O’Connell implores the reader to resist easy conclusions.”
There are some undisputed facts about 1982. Malcolm Macarthur, the dandyish progeny of wealthy landed gentry, finds his inheritance is about to run out. Rather than beg or borrow, Macarthur decides to steal: to rob a bank. But in order to do this he needs a gun and a car. In a sequence of events as ridiculous as they are horrifying, he brutally murders two innocents, Bridie Gargan and Donal Dunne. Woefully careless in covering his tracks, Macarthur then hides out in the apartment of an unsuspecting friend, taking periodic deliveries of sparkling water and Town & Country magazine. Inevitably, the Gardaí close in, and both Macarthur and the identity of his friend are discovered. In the most absurd twist of all, the apartment belongs to Patrick Connolly, Ireland’s Attorney General.
The sartorial metaphor (‘thread of violence’) that Macarthur employs is apt. In the media storm that ensued, the Irish press made much of Macarthur’s style of dress — the cravat he wore as a child, the bow tie that distinguished him to witnesses as an adult. Released from prison in 2012, Macarthur is still concerned about appearances. He fancies himself a gentleman and a scholar. The brutal acts in what he quaintly calls his ‘criminal episode,’ though undenied and undeniable, are something distinct from him — a thread to be unravelled, an outfit he once wore, rather than part of his character.
O’Connell is, in many ways, the perfect person to attempt this unravelling. A renowned journalist, he seduces Macarthur into an interview by giving him a copy of The New York Review of Books featuring a piece he has written. His investigation is acutely self-conscious: he questions his own motivations, the conventions and mores of the true crime genre, and what it means to write about someone so compromised, so utterly unreliable, while also desiring ‘narrative coherence’. This makes for fascinating, unsettling reading, partly because it seems to award Macarthur the prestige he craves.
Macarthur does not seem, to be sure, particularly Machiavellian. O’Connell often portrays him as a lonely old man, desperate for companionship. But Macarthur’s explanations for his acts — that he was suffering from a form of ‘temporary insanity’, while also citing a definite financial motive — never stack up. The idea that killing was the only way to avoid working for a living, to protect his well-heeled aristocratic image, to not be ordinary, is unpersuasive. As Macarthur is both defined and eclipsed by his strange crimes, O’Connell implores the reader to resist easy conclusions.
Words: Eve Hawksworth
A Thread of Violence