After forty years as a journalist, former Irish Times editor Conor Brady published his first piece of fiction earlier this year, a crime novel titled A June of Ordinary Murders.
The book takes place in 1887 Dublin, and follows Sergeant Joe Swallow as he investigates a series of seemingly unconnected murders around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee visit. In the 1880s the Dublin Metropolitan Police classified crime in two distinct classes. Political crimes were ‘special’, whereas theft, robbery and even murder, no matter how terrible, were ‘ordinary’. In June 1887 the mutilated bodies of a man and a child are discovered in Phoenix Park and Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow steps up to investigate. Cynical and tired, Swallow is a man living on past successes in need of a win.
In the background, the city is sweltering in a long summer heatwave, a potential gangland war is simmering as the chief lieutenants of a dying crime boss size each other up and the castle administration want the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee to pass off without complication. Underneath it all, the growing threat of anti-British radicals is never far away. With the Land War at its height, the priority is to contain ‘special’ crime. But these murders appear to be ‘ordinary’ and thus of lesser priority. When the evidence suggests high-level involvement, and as the body count increases, Swallow must navigate the waters of foolish superiors, political directives and frayed tempers to investigate the crime, find the true murderer and deliver justice.
The Irish Independent says of A June of Ordinary Murders “Brady handles the political atmosphere of the time with aplomb. A June Of Ordinary Murders pulsates with a vivid sense of a country on edge as the land wars rage and preparations get under way for a royal visit.
His descriptions of the oppressive heatwave that settled on Dublin that month are equally impressive, as “the human waste that accumulated in thousands of dry lavatories baked and stank in the heat”.
When he left the Times, Brady was interested in trying something new. “My whole life was journalism, rather buttoned-up kind of prose that one has to use in serious newspapers. I had written a couple of history books, but I’d never done anything creative. So I wondered, ‘Was there a creative gene in there somewhere?’ I guess a lot of journalists have to ask themselves that question. And I said, ‘I’ll try it.’”
Unlike many first-time and veteran novelists, Brady did not have to deal with a series of rejections in his quest to get the book published. He says the whole thing happened rather quickly.
“I really put it together over a period of, I suppose, two or three years, maybe. I didn’t sit down at nine o’clock every morning and say, ‘I’m going to do this now until lunchtime,’ or something. What I did was, I did it weekends, take your laptop on an airplane with you, do a bit on holidays. And before I knew it, I had a story and I had a plot and I had characters. And I didn’t quite know what to do with them.”
Brady met with his late friend and colleague, Caroline Walsh, in July 2011 and asked her what she thought he should do with the pages he’d written. She suggested he send them to New Island, a Dublin publisher with a history of publishing Irish Times writers. “So I sent it on to Edwin [Higel, New Island publisher], and to my pleasure and surprise, he came back and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll go ahead with this.’” Brady then had just a few months to polish his project into a final product. “Then the real challenge came because it was a first draft, and rather scrappy and rather untidy in many ways. I worked from December through to March, really just finishing it off. Kind of a bit of a rush at the end.”
He says he’s aware how unusually quick the whole process was for him. “I’d known a lot of creative writers. And I was aware that the usual progression is that you get about ninety rejections and then, somewhere, there’s a Sylvia Beach who says, ‘I like what this person is writing.’ But that didn’t happen that way. So I’ve been kind of spoiled, I guess.”
In December, Brady finished a six-year post as a commissioner for the Garda Ombudsman, but says his experiences as a journalist were much more relevant to the novel than the time he spent in law enforcement. His tendency to include a lot of detail in his writing comes from the journalist in him. “I think as a journalist, you tend to do that, you tend to put it all in. And I think that is reflected in the book. And if there’s a second one – and I hope there will be – I think I’ll probably have to discipline myself a bit on that.”
Brady studied history at university and knew a bit about the period he set the book in. “It’s a fascinating period in the evolution of modern Ireland. Ireland was just emerging from the famine years; it had put the famine behind us. The country had settled to conditions of some comfort and affluence – it was quite a well-off country by European standards, doing very well within the British Empire. And the British Empire was at its height, Britain was the wealthiest country on Earth. Ireland was sharing in that wealth and doing very well at it. And a lot of things were happening in Ireland, though, which created a lot of conflict. And the society was quite conflicted. Although you had a lot of economic comfort and perhaps a lot of prestige within the empire, at the same time new impulses were emerging and Irish nationalism as we now know it was resurgent. We had a whole new cultural assertion of a new kind of Irishness, and it was that new form of nationalism that actually led to independence. I think the roots of that lie in this period.”
Brady writes about many of those conflicts between British and Irish identities in the novel.
He says writing about a historical period required a lot of research to ensure details like street names and locations were correct, and the social attitudes and vocabulary in the book rang true.
As a reader of crime fiction, who cites Ellis Peters, Henning Mankell, and Philip Kerr as some of his favourite authors, Brady says the genre is an attractive one, but he didn’t set out to write a crime novel. “I didn’t know I was writing crime fiction, I was told that by my publishers. And I suppose, yes, it is crime fiction, but I think it’s also more than crime fiction. There’s also historical narrative, there’s a sociological narrative. I think there’s suspense in the story, but I hope there’s more than suspense, I think it’s also a story about a city and about a place, about a time. But there is a crime fiction story at the core of it, I guess.”
He says there’s no such thing as a typical writing day for him. “I write everywhere, and as a reporter, you learn to do this. I’d write on a bus, write on the train, write waiting in the airplane. Some days you get up early in the morning and do two hours before breakfast. Sometimes you stay up late at night. Sometimes weeks go by and you write nothing at all. Because I was working full-time, I kind of built my writing around that. Now that my time is my own, I’m getting into a more regular pattern. I find the mornings best.”
Brady prefers letting his writing flow on its own to disciplining himself to write a certain amount or for a certain period of time. “If you set yourself targets like that, you end up basically turning out crap just to fill lines, which is no good to anybody.”
Brady says he hopes to write a second novel as a follow-up to A June of Ordinary Murders. “People who’ve read it say that they’d like to know more about what’s happened to some of these characters. And it is left in such a way, I suppose, that it can go on. But I’ll need to see what the publishers have to say about it. I think it’s selling quite well, from what I can gather. So I think they should be pleased. What I enjoy is when people come back to me and they say, ‘Whatever happened to this character? Whatever happened to that character? And will we see more of him or her?’”
Brady has an outline for what happens next and has even begun writing some of it, but has no concrete plans for his next project, saying only that the period he’s written about holds a lot of potential…
A June of Ordinary Murders is out now from New Island.