A CRIME WRITER IS BORN
In 1981 my parents purchased a JVC HR-3660, one of the first VHS-based VCRs commercially available in Ireland. It was top-loading, weighed more than thirty pounds and had a row of gleaming silver levers that reminded my mother of piano keys. The VCR cost 795 Irish pounds or almost a quarter of my father’s annual salary at the time; it wouldn’t technically be theirs until they paid the thirty-sixth and final monthly instalment. I came along a year later, in 1982.
As soon as I was old enough to get pocket-money, I started leaving it all in the video store five minutes’ walk from our house in Grange, a suburb on the southside of Cork City. After exhausting the offerings in the children’s section (Space Camp! Hook! Uncle Buck!), I wandered into a far corner of the store where the colours beneath the thick plastic cases were darker and the handwritten sign above them promised TRUE LIFE. Here sat rows and rows of American made-for-TV movies based on infamous American crimes, inexplicably available to rent on VHS in Ireland for one pound a pop. I was obsessed.
A Killing in Beverly Hills told the story of the Menendez brothers, who shot their parents dead so they could either escape their father’s abuse, as they claimed, or start spending their inheritance, as the prosecution did. Ambush in Waco: In the Line of Duty re-enacted the siege in Texas sparked by a bungled ATF raid which resulted in the deaths of four federal agents and seventy-six members of a cult called the Branch Davidians. In Small Sacrifices: The Diane Downs Story, a single mother shot her three young children at point-blank range in her car, drove slowly to the nearest hospital and claimed that a stranger had done it. I can still remember the gut-wrenching courtroom scenes. The prosecution re-enacting the crime in an oddly disconcerting mock-up of the car. The horror of a teary child in the witness box being asked, ‘Who shot you?’ and her having to unsteadily say, ‘My mom,’ in response. Farrah Fawcett’s hair.
Then there was Victim of Beauty: The Dawn Smith Story (released in North America as Nightmare in Columbia County.) Dawn’s seventeen-year-old sister, Shari, was kidnapped in broad daylight from the end of her own driveway by Larry Gene Bell in May 1985. He subsequently murdered her. The made-for-TV version of events, starring Jeri Ryan as Dawn Smith and William Devane as Sheriff Jim Metts, focused on Bell’s obsession with Dawn – a blonde, blue-eyed beauty pageant contestant – in the twenty-eight-day period between Shari’s disappearance and Bell’s capture. The climax of the movie is Dawn’s triumphant turn at the 1987 Miss America pageant, where she finished third despite everything. I saw Victim of Beauty for the first time on July 5, 1992. I know the date because it was the featured entertainment at the slumber party I had to celebrate my tenth birthday party. Our favourite part was the pageant. All those pretty dresses.
Before you set Social Services on my wonderful parents, you should know two things: I was the eldest and so got away with murder, and this was very much the norm in my circle of friends. We rented Victim of Beauty for my party because one of my classmates had already seen it and recommended it to the rest of us. (‘Pretty dresses!’) Weeks later, at the next tenth birthday celebration in our circle, we gathered together to watch Child’s Play 3 alongside the birthday girl’s mother. Everything always came to Ireland late including, evidently, concerns over ‘video nasties’ and the effects watching them might have on children.
I knew the horrors of my age-inappropriate video rentals were real, but it was hard to take that in when they weren’t my reality. News flowed into our house four times a day: two newspapers, the Cork Examiner and the Evening Echo, and two news bulletins from our public broadcaster RTÉ, one after the Angelus at a minute past six o’clock and another at nine. (The Angelus, a succession of bells and a prompt to pause and reflect, is still aired on Irish television every day at six.) When I started paying attention to the local and national headlines, I never saw any similar stories in them. There were murders here, yes – forty-five of them in 1992 – but if they had a random, it-could-have-been-you element, it was far more likely to be a terrorist’s bomb than a serial killer’s dark compulsion. This was Ireland in the early 90s. The awful crimes sensationalised on those worn-out VHS tapes? Things like that just didn’t happen here.
But then they started to. In March 1993, Annie McCarrick, an American studying in Dublin, disappeared without trace. She would be the first of an unofficial tally of eight young women swallowed whole by Ireland’s so-called ‘Vanishing Triangle’ by the time the decade was out. No trace of these women would ever be found and to date no one has been convicted of any crime in connection with their disappearances. In December 1996, Frenchwoman Sophie Toscan du Plantier was brutally murdered outside her house in Schull in Cork, the unsolved case at the centre of the popular West Cork podcast. In April 2002, nineteen-year-old Peter Whelan broke into a house in Rochestown, another southside suburb of Cork City just minutes from my own, and attacked twenty-year-old Nicola Sweeney and nineteen-year-old Sinead O’Leary. He left Nicola dead and Sinead with more than twenty stab wounds. The local rumour mill whispered that when the girls had called 999 for help, the operator had accused them of playing a prank. We believed it because that was how unfathomable such an event was in Ireland at the time: even the Gardaí, our unarmed police force, didn’t think such a thing could happen.
As a female Irish crime writer, the most annoying question to be asked is not ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ (For the record, I actually quite like being asked that, because I know the answer.) It’s ‘Why are there so many female Irish crime writers?’ I used to say I didn’t know. Then one of our leading lights, Liz Nugent (Lying in Wait, Skin Deep) wrote The Gothic Horrors of 1980s Ireland, and I started answering the question by telling people to go read that. But the truth is, I was a little young for Liz’s hypothesis: that to be a girl growing up in Ireland in the 1980s was to hear story after story of Gothic horrors inflicted upon your sex, of women being dismissed and silenced, and that when these girls became women they responded by finding their voices, by confronting these horrors head on, and refusing to shut up.
I didn’t really start paying attention to the news until the decade later, the 1990s, but Liz’s article prompted me to think about what I saw when I did. I saw missing women, snatched from their lives, that no one could find on this island of Ireland despite it being so small, despite it being smaller than the state of Indiana. I saw a woman bludgeoned to death at the end of her own driveway, her body left all alone in the wilds of a West Cork winter’s night, and for her killer to evade capture because the men who were the local Gardaí couldn’t get their act together. I saw two girls my own age getting ready for a night out, who in turn saw a knife-wielding figure detach himself from the shadows in the hallway outside the room and come for them. And thanks to my age-inappropriate made-for-TV true crime movie habit, I knew how much worse it could get, how much more horror there could be to come.
I didn’t want to be scared. I wanted to face it. I wanted to know what I was dealing with, what I should do, where a killer’s weak spots were likely to be. I learned things like the importance of protecting your personal information, how to get out of a locked trunk, and why you should do whatever it takes to prevent your attacker from taking you to a second location. And then I wrote stories about women who had learned these things and who, when unspeakable horrors came calling, used this knowledge to survive.
And that made me feel safe.
As I was writing this, I started to doubt my memory of Small Sacrifices and went looking for it. I found three slightly blurry hours of it on YouTube. Thirty-seven-year-old me re-watched the whole thing on the screen of my phone.
Catherine Ryan Howard is a crime writer from Cork, Ireland. She has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel (The Liar’s Girl) and the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger (Distress Signals). Her latest novel, Rewind, is currently shortlisted for Irish Crime Fiction Book of the Year. Find out more on www.catherineryanhoward.com.