A rural murder in Tipperary 70 years ago is not the first place you would look for illumination of what lies behind wanton chaos in our cities or our “broken society”, but as we watch the politicians and police use the recent riots to advance their own agendas, Carlo Gébler’s novel reverberates with insights.
In November 1940 the body of Moll McCarthy, shot to death, was found in a field near the village of New Inn, County Tipperary. “Foxy Moll” was an unmarried mother of seven who, in Gébler’s reconstruction of events leading to the crime, always hoped that one of the men with whom she had affairs would marry her.
Moll was from the lower end of society, house-proud and a caring mother within her means. But when she starts on a relationship with a vain and charming local Republican, Johnny Spink, and subsequently with the police sergeant posted to the area to deal with Spink, she is caught between old hatreds.
Worse was to follow in the case: an innocent local farmer, Harry Gleeson, was framed by the police, tried and hanged for the murder six months later.
Gébler has explored real-life murders before in his novels The Cure and How To Murder a Man, showing a Swiftian understanding of the world’s secret machinations.
His last novel, A Good Day For a Dog, was a small masterpiece of storytelling about a convict’s life, and I know few novelists who write their way so vividly into the motivations of characters at the dead-end of the social scale (Moll’s existence, for example, doesn’t come across as depressing: she remains hopeful), or so thoroughly into the self-righteousness of the establishment.
It’s a sign of Gébler’s skill that while Moll’s and Harry’s innocence is thrown into stark relief by the pietism and dishonesty of both the Irish state and Catholic church, neither swamps the narrative.
He is excellent, in a William Trevor-like way, at the communicative detail, and by a storyteller’s sleight of hand the fictional parts of the reconstruction tend to read even more convincingly than the documentary aftermath of the murder and miscarriage of justice.
Gébler is an overlooked novelist. The Dead Eight is one of the truest, least flashy, most human novels I have read for a long time.
As for present-day parallels, he reminds us very precisely of our duty to truth, both in his revival of the McCarthy-Gleeson story and in the Irish proverb he takes as his epigraph: “Lies are the quickest way to hang a man.”