Nimah O’Connor is Too Close for Comfort

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews
Niamh O'Connor is a crime writer and journalist

By Louise Phillips

When you think of Niamh O’Connor, you think Successful Crime Novelist, you think True Crime Editor of the Sunday World, you think of someone who interviews high-profile criminals and their victims. A woman who regularly appears on our television screens talking about crime, helping us to understand the phenomenon of what’s happening in the darker side of Irish society, what’s happening on our streets, you think of a woman on the cutting edge who can tell a gritty crime story both in true-life and in the fictional sense – you think of a woman who can tell it as it is, because she darn well knows it.

So the first time I met Niamh, what were my expectations?

There is no denying that because of her journalistic role, she is close to the underbelly of Irish crime, but like many others, I had watched and listened to Niamh, while curled up in front of my television at home, and what struck me most about her was how gentle, understanding and warm a person she seemed, all the while exposing and reporting on the true horror of crime in our society. When I met her in person, that’s exactly what she was like.

We first talked down at the Four Courts, a place Niamh regularly visits to report high-profile cases from the dock, but on this occasion, it was at a Dublin UNESCO City of Literature event Great Writing, Great Places. Niamh was chairing a panel with crime writers Declan Hughes, Stuart Neville and Arlene Hunt. Afterwards we had time for a brief chat. Now, I’m a first impression type of person, maybe I’m wrong, but there are some things you can’t change about yourself, and when I met Niamh, I instantly liked her. You get a sense when people are talking straight to you, without the bullshit, and that’s how I felt talking to Niamh O’Connor, and obviously, I’m not alone in this opinion. Niamh’s straight talking and great writing, is part of the reason why her first fictional novel, If I Never See You Again went to number one in the Nielsen Heatseekers chart when it was released in the UK in January 2011, and was also nominated in the Best Newcomers category of the Irish Book Awards . Her follow-up novel, Taken, was also a bestseller in Ireland.

So with all of this in mind, I was more than keen to talk to Niamh about her latest novel – Too Close for Comfort.

The first thing I wanted to ask Niamh about was how much the events surrounding the demise of the News of the World influenced the writing of Too Close For Comfort, especially considering that the less than pretty side of journalism inhabits this particular fictional world. In her no-nonsense manner, Niamh told me:‘Yes, it was an important aspect to me because I’ve worked in journalism for twenty-odd years and I was really sorry to see the News of the World close. It was a brilliant newspaper and it had incredible stories, but the methods used to gather them were shocking and I wanted to ask if getting to the truth justifies the means used to get there. I personally think our society will be poorer without a newspaper that can show us that there are no sacred cows, but I needed to take the skills used in the NOTW newsroom out into the wider community and see what havoc it could create among neighbours to conclude that actually the way information was gathered in that newspaper was ultimately too destructive a force.’

The disappearence of a series of young women in the Dublin Mountains over recent years is a core aspect of Too Close For Comfort, and one I really wanted to discuss with Niamh. I was keen to know if, like myself, Niamh believed that the disappearances had somehow become part of the Dublin/Irish psyche, haunting many of us. Niamh told me I do, Louise, and I know this is a subject particularly close to your own heart, and I’m really looking forward to reading your take on it when Red Ribbons is published in September. Ireland is so small and the missing girls – Jo Jo, Annie, Deirdre, Ciara and the two Fionas – are known by their first names and tragically are still out there. I was in school when Annie disappeared and now I’m a mum of three. The years keep passing by for the rest of us, but for the families time is warped because of that moment in time that deprived them of answers. Someone knows what happened in each, or all, of the cases that’s the most sickening part.’

I really enjoyed reading Too Close for Comfort, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the minuteness of detail Niamh weaves into the narrative, creating a very sensory and extremely visual platform. I was intrigued to know to what extent Niamh’s journalistic eye played its role in her fiction writing – did she ever switch off, or was this detailed way of viewing both factual and fictional worlds an inherent element in all her writing? Niamh explained, ‘I suppose from writing true crime, I know that when someone real is in the dock, you end up reading a lot from the way they’re dressed, made up, hold themselves, speak. People are all types, by this I mean, I know we’re all individuals, but if you tell me something about a woman who lives in Stillorgan in Dublin, and drives a space wagon, instantly I get a sense of other aspects of her life – rightly or wrongly. I hope this makes sense.’

And what about the other myth, that writing fictional crime with an Irish location is somehow less sexy than setting it in other areas of the globe? Niamh told me, ‘They say write what you know, so that’s what I do. I think there was definitely an attitude that setting a crime novel in Ireland was not the way to go and that’s because we have such brilliant authors like John Connolly and Alex Barclay placing theirs in the States. But when you see the crop of crime writers currently basing their books in Ireland, it’s proof the attitude is changing.’

Too Close for Comfort is one of the first post Celtic Tiger Ireland Crime novels, is filled with rogue solicitors, figures from the criminal underworld, shady journalists, and ordinary, sometimes desperate people, dealing with the effects of the economic fallout. I wondered if mirroring the unravelling economy and society was important to Niamh? She explained, I think it’s the duty of the novelist to write about what’s happening in their society. And we’re living in a really scary time economically and it just feels like society is unravelling and everyone we used to trust – profession wise – is on the take. I write what I overhear conversation wise. Nobody seems to trust anyone or anything anymore. That makes for great conflict in fiction.’

Liz Carpenter and DI Jo Birmingham are key characters in Too Close for Comfort, women who walk very different paths, but who are both driven by either resolve or desperation to find out the truth – they are both women whose family life and the need to protect those closest to them is core to the storyline, and they are both challenged emotionally in this novel. So I asked Niamh what was it about their similarities and differences which influenced her placing them together in such a parallel and yet diverse manner? Nimah told me, “I wanted to use Liz as a foil for Jo. Neither of these women deep down trust their husbands, but both have to protect them for their own reasons. If you take the ‘how it looks’ from the outside point of view, neither of them actually should trust their husbands, but I think a lot of women soldier on and I wanted this book to speak to them.’

DI Jo Birmingham is a fascinating, complex female character, one who is hooks the reader in and keeps them wanting more. I couldn’t let Niamh go without asking if we will see DI Birmingham again in another book, and whether the plot line that unfolds at the very end of Too Close For Comfort – the mystery surrounding DI Sexton’s wife’s death, would be explored. She assured me: Yes, the next book ‘Worse Can Happen’ is Sexton’s story of what happened to his wife, and it’s due out next year!!’

More About Too Close For Comfort:

The Vanishing Triangle

A woman’s body is found in Ireland’s most notorious body dump zone, an area in the Dublin mountains where a number of women disappeared in the past.

The victim is from an exclusive gated development in the suburbs – where the prime suspect in the vanishing triangle cases, Derek Carpenter, now lives. It looks like the past is coming back to haunt the present.

But DI Jo Birmingham doesn’t believe the case is open and shut. Her husband Dan was part of the original investigation team; is she trying to protect her own fragile domestic peace?

The one person who could help her crack the case, Derek’s wife Liz, is so desperate to protect her family that she is going out of her way to thwart all efforts to establish the truth.

Can both women emerge unscathed?

Niamh O’Connor is one of Ireland’s best known crime authors. She is the true-crime editor with the Sunday World, Ireland’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper. Her job, in which she interviews both high- profile criminals and their victims, means she knows the world she is writing about.

If I Never See You Again went to number one in the Nielsen Heatseekers chart when it was released in the UK in January 2011 and was nominated in the Best Newcomers category of the Irish Book Awards in November 2010. Her follow-up novel, Taken, was a number-two bestseller in Ireland in June 2011.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT is available through bookstores nationwide, and on Amazon

About the author

(c) Louise Phillips July 2012

Louise Phillips debut novel Red Ribbons is due out with Hachette Ireland in September 2012. She blogs here on writing.ie at Crime Scene, keeping readers in touch with what’s new in Irish crime writing, and at her own blog http://www.louise-phillips.com/

Born in Dublin, Louise Phillips began writing in 2006 when her youngest son turned thirteen. Since then, Louise has won the Jonathan Swift Award with her story Last Kiss. She was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, short-listed for the Molly Keane Memorial Award, Bridport UK, and long-listed twice for RTE Guide/Penguin short story competition. Louise has been published as part of many anthologies, including County Lines from New Island, and various literary journals. In May this year she was awarded an Arts Bursary for Literature from South Dublin Arts Council.Red Ribbons centres on the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old school girl and the main character Kate Pearson, a criminal psychologist who is drafted in by the police to help them find the killer.

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