Last updated on February 6, 2016
The town I live in lies between Cork city and the seaside village of Crosshaven, on the south coast of Ireland. It is a beautiful area – one I have been lucky enough to have lived in all my life. The scenery remains as stunning as ever, but over the years the changes in Irish society have been remarkable. We have seen huge societal shifts as we embraced the era of global communications .Because my latest book, Thicker Than Water, is a thriller, I am particularly aware of how murder, with all its attendant tragedy, has now become less a disturbing scandal and more a fleeting news item.
Back in 1963, Ireland was beginning to wake up to multiculturism, the Beatles and equal rights for women, amongst other things. In Dublin, a 22 year old South African named Shan Mohangi was attending the Royal College of Surgeons. He also worked part-time in a café named The Green Tureen. This is where he met sixteen year old Hazel Mullen. They became boyfriend and girlfriend, then murderer and victim as Shan strangled Hazel, dismembered her body and attempted to incinerate body parts in an oven.
The reason I mention this case is that now, fifty three years later, I still vividly remember the shock, scandal, the rumours about an abortion gone wrong. There was no other topic of conversation. It was all the more terrifying for a child, as any questions about what had happened were pushed aside. None of this was considered suitable for small ears, but hear it I did. I remember seeing Mohangi’s picture in the newspaper and being amazed that he was not snarling or did not have fiery red eyes. For months and months the public interest did not wane. His trial was reported on and followed word for word. He was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, appealed the sentence and had the charge reduced to manslaughter, for which he was given a term of seven years imprisonment. He served four years of that sentence before being deported back to South Africa. But the story did not end there.
Forward now to 1993 and assembly elections in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. One of the candidates standing for election was a successful business man named Narentuk Jumuna. He had joined the Independent Democrats only one month previously. They were scandalised to find that their new candidate was none other than Shan Mohangi, convicted murderer, who had changed his name to Narentuk Jumuna on his return to South Africa in 1968. Even though according to South African law he was entitled to stand, he resigned from the party immediately. I wonder if he felt cheated out of a parliamentary seat. Hardly comparable with cheating Hazel Mullen out of a future.
There was some public interest in the media reports about Shan’s abortive 1993 election candidacy, but nothing like the all-consuming shock, curiosity and thirst for every detail which marked the 1963 murder and trail. We have become jaded with media reports of tragedy after tragedy, crime after crime. The stats vary, but on average put the number of men who commit murder at between three in one million and 3000 in one million, depending on how violent or tolerant of crime a society is. The equivalent statistics for women murderers vary between one in four million and 525 in one million. You can compute all the figures you like, but none of this will convey the utter devastation visited on families by the act of murder. Familiarity is certainly breeding contempt as far as attitude to killing is concerned. News of yet another murder is often now greeted by a world-weary shrug. Maybe becoming desensitised to tragedy is a necessary self-protection. However, if we lose our sense of horror at the unlawful taking of life, we are losing our humanity.
In doing research for Thicker Than Water, I read many murder histories, both fact and fiction. To write my story, which revolves around murder in a rural Irish town, I had to put myself into the mind of the murderer. Or I should say that is what I tried to do. The debate goes on as to whether babies are born with a killer gene or are moulded into murderers through unfortunate circumstances or deprivation. The argument which comes down on the side of environment is suspect , in my opinion , for two reasons ; one, not all killers come from deprived backgrounds ; two, in a family of , say four siblings , all subject to the same environmental conditions , it often happens that three may go on to lead law abiding lives , while one may become a killer.
The answer to what makes humans kill probably encompasses all factors, from child abuse, to poverty, to ‘the warrior gene’ to self-defence to just plain evil. Perhaps in the future, new born babies will be gene tested for a pre-disposition to violence. I hope this does not happen until genetic engineering offers a quick and permanent solution to protecting the child, and the society into which it will grow up, from the tragedy of murder.
Thank you to Troy Lambert for hosting me on his blogspot and thanks also to Lucy Felthouse (Writer Marketing Services) for organising my visit here.
Here is an excerpt in the voice of the killer from Thicker Than Water.
I piled more coal into the stove and then when flames were whooshing up the flue I went to place my runners into the furnace. The glass door open, heat searing my face, I hesitated. The uppers would burn quickly but what about the thick rubber soles. They would belch toxins out the flue. Huge clouds of black smoke could draw unwanted attention. It was night time but some people never slept. I reached for a knife, separated the uppers from the soles and threw the tattered pieces of canvas into the stove with the insoles. I waited until only cinder and ashes remained. I scrubbed and scraped, boiled kettles of water to scald and sterilise and did not stop until the rubber soles were like new. Then I chopped them in pieces, seeing Andrea McGee’s face in every ridge and indent, cutting her image away only to have it reappear. And the others, they were here too, mouths open, eyes wide, begging. Just as I had last seen them. I drew the knife back again and again , plunging it into their ghostly faces until , at last I felt it , that all-encompassing surge of warmth , that spilling of fear and doubt . That power. That peace. I wrapped up the butchered, spotless soles of my runners in a plastic bag. They were anonymous now, safe to dispose of anywhere. I was ready to slip back into my role.
When local teenager, Keira Shannon and her father, business man Gerard Shannon, go missing, the town of Ballyderg unites to search for them.
As the search continues rumours of domestic violence, extramarital affairs and criminal behaviour are rife. The crisis causes families and lifelong friends to doubt each other.
The only certainty left is that the town has been visited by evil. Or has it? Could it be the evil one has always lived there sharing history, laughter and tears? And if so, who could it be?
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Mary worked many years as a Laboratory Technician. Her hobby, her passion, has always been writing. Busy with family and career, she grabbed some moments here and there to write poetry and short stories. She also wrote a general interest column in a local newspaper.
As the demands on her time became more manageable she joined a local creative writing class. It was then, with the encouragement of tutor Vincent McDonald, that the idea of writing a novel took shape. She began to expand on a short story she had written some years previously. It was a shock for her to discover that enthusiasm and imagination are not enough. For the first time she learned that writing can be very hard work.
Mary now has six traditionally published novels, nine eBooks and hopefully more to come, inspiration permitting.
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