Risky Business

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

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

Niamh O’Connor is the True Crime editor of the Sunday World newspaper and a bestselling author. Her first fiction, If I Never See You Again stormed into the top ten of the Irish bestseller chart, was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards best newcomer category and hit the No.1 slot in the UK’s Heatseeker chart.

If I Never See You Again introduced readers to ballsy DI Jo Birmingham, a mother of two with a failed marriage and her own skeletons in the cupboard. Taken is the second novel in the Jo Birmingham series, and while ‘gripping page turner’ may be a cliché, this book is it. This week, Taken went into the Irish chart at No.2, so it’s not just me thinks it’s a great book!

In this exclusive interview, Niamh O’Connor, a mother of two herself, tell us about her books, writing and a job that takes her to the very edge of society.

You have been writing for many years; tell us about your previous books…

I wrote The Black Widow in 2000 about Catherine Nevin who murdered her husband Tom. Cracking Crimewas about the life and times of Dr Jim Donovan, the founder of the forensic science lab targeted by the General Martin Cahill. Blood Ties was an amalgamation of three of the true crime books I wrote for the Sunday World about wife killer, Joe O’Reilly, Scissor Sisters Charlotte and Linda Mulhall who killed, dismemebered and dumped their mother’s toyboy lover, and Ennis housewife, Sharon ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ Collins who Googled a hitman to try and bump off her pensioner property magnate partner, PJ Howard and his two sons. I’ve written a number of other true crime books for the newspaper including one about missing women prime suspect, Larry Murphy, and the unsolved case of murdered Glenageary teenager, Raonaid Murray. If I Never See You Again was published last year and is my first novel. Taken is the next in the DI Jo Birmingham series.

Do you prefer writing true crime or fiction?

I get a very different kick out of both. True crime is easy because you have to stick to the script. But there are moments when you wish what happened next wasn’t so predictable and you could make it more suspenseful for readers. In fiction – you call the shots, but that comes with a whole new set of challenges.

You have a very stressful full time day job- how and when do you find time to write?

Nights … weekends … early mornings … late nights … leave.

You work with criminals every day – do you find inspiration for your fiction comes easily as a result of that?

Definitely, you couldn’t make some of the stuff up.

Your new book Taken is a tight, fast paced, can’t stop turning the pages story – in order to achieve that, do you plot and plan meticulously or see where the story takes you?

I do plot and plan broadly, you have to know where you’re going, but if you can’t let the story surprise you along the way, it won’t surprise readers.

The terrifying opening of Taken will set all mothers’ spines tingling yet we are don’t actually see a crime committed – you play masterfully on our fears. Do you think crime writing needs to be brutal and graphic to hook the reader?

I had this conversation with my agent, Jane Gregory, who represents crime writers like Val McDermid, Mo Hayder, and Belinda Bauer and she says definitely not. I think the fear of what’s coming next is a more powerful tool. If it’s happening in the reader’s imagination you’re pressing more psychological buttons.

What is your greatest fear?

What the families of missing people go through. Imagine the living hell of not being able to say goodbye even to a body. Every time the phone, or doorbell would ring some part of you would still hope. You’d think about Jaycee Lee Dugard, found after 18 years in Phillip Garrido’s back yard in California; or Natascha Kampusch imprisoned in a cellar in Vienna by Wolfgang Priklopil for nine years; or Elisabeth Fritzl who bore her father seven children over 24 years – all of them suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome and conflicted over their feelings towards their abuser because of their captivity.

Have you ever been really frightened for your personal safety on a job?

The threat tends to come from places you least expect it. I went undercover to procure a mortgage from a gangster named Robert Dignam organising legitimate bank money for underworld criminals, but I was physically attacked by the mother of a notorious rapist for knocking at her door. See what I mean.

Do you get affected by the human stories you cover?

I cry covering stories all the time. How can you stay detached from the funeral of a five year old, like that of Ryan O’Dwyer, buried in Cork? He was staying with his granny for Easter, as was his aunt Helena because she’d been threatened and was scared of someone. The house they were sleeping in was firebombed during the night and Ryan died. His worldly possessions were lined up alongside the little white coffin – Optimus Prime, his Toy Story schoolbag, and his unopened Ben 10 Easter Egg.

I can never keep it together interviewing those left behind by suicide either. I spoke to Colin Roche’s father, Peter in Galway and Leanne Wolfe’s mother, Colette  in Cork, in recent times, and I really believe the tragedy they live with every minute of every day is worse than murder because they can’t focus their anger at anyone. Colin was a gorgeous looking, beloved, 24 year old with his whole life ahead of him, who acted completely out of character to just end his sadness one night. The devastation he left behind caused his girlfriend Lisa Healy to take her own life within weeks.

And Leanne was just like Phoebe Prince, she took her own life because of bullies when she’d just turned 18. She’d been physically assaulted by them and hounded on Bebo and with vile messages on her mobile phone even on the night she died. Colette said to me, ‘think of the love you feel for your babies. That’s how I loved Leanne. Think what it would feel like to have someone grind them down so low, that they thought their life was worth nothing.’

Who or what has had the greatest influence on you?

The mammy, who worked in a bookshop with a secret door in a wall of books that opened in to a room that smelt of percolated coffee.

Who do you admire the most?

People like Steve Collins who believes his son, Roy, was murdered because he gave evidence against Limerick mobster, Wayne Dundon in court. Every time Steve goes public he puts his own life at risk for the rest of us, or Clare Rojas – kidnapped by the Farc guerrillas in 2002, made pregnant by one of her captors, who managed to find her baby against the odds when she was released five years later – in a home for destitute families in Columbia.

If you could interview anyone living or dead, who would it be and why?

I’d like to interview Larry Murphy, the Wicklow carpenter caught trying to murder a woman he had abducted from a public car park, raped, and was trying to murder in the mountains when hunters lamping foxes happened upon him and saved the woman’s life. Murphy was an ordinary Jo, married with sons, who was working in Newbridge, Co Kildare when student teacher, Deirdre Jacob vanished, and he lived in Castledermot, Co Kildare where Jo Jo Dullard is believed to have been last sighted hitching home.

I’m also fascinated by Robert Pickton, the pig farmer turned serial killer who admitted to an undercover cop who shared a cell with him that he’d murdered 50 women. I’d like to know what happened to him to have made him a monster, to find out what was the turning point.

What is your greatest regret so far in your career?

Not getting Scissor Sister Charlotte Mulhall to tell me where Farah Noor’s head was. It was her only interview. I was so, so close.

What is the craziest thing that you ever did on a job?

I got into Mountjoy surreptitiously to interview a life prisoner and was allowed  into a visiting room to talk to him. I believe time will show this man was telling the truth and his is a miscarriage of justice case because of what he’s told me about the night in question, but my mind did flick through a few ‘what ifs’ while I was in there.

What is the philosophy that you live by?

Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

What is your most treasured possession?

A Remington International typewriter, rescued by my dad in an office clear out when I was 14, and kept on my desk to remind myself what sore fingers really feel like.

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

“Start again, kid,” – Sunday World editor, Colm McGinty.

What piece of advice would you give anyone wanting to write crime?

Go into the Central Criminal Court on day one of a murder trial and watch how it works.

Huge thanks to Niamh O’Connor for chatting so openly with www.writing.ie



About the author

Niamh O’Connor’s Taken is released on 26th May, here’s a taster of what you can expect:

It’s a cold wet winter night when a car pulls into a service station on Dublin quays. Strapped on to the back-seat is a three-year-old boy. Asleep. Five minutes later he’s gone – kidnapped in the time it’s taken his mother to pay for her petrol. Distraught and fearing for his safety, model Tara Parker Trench has only one option: DI Jo Birmingham.

It’s a fabulous read – you won’t be disappointed!

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