IT is always a joy to speak to someone who is passionate about their work, and it is hard to imagine someone more enthusiastic about the crime fiction genre than author Siobhán MacDonald.
The Cork native, who now lives in Limerick, but spent her early years in Bishopstown, chatted to me about the thought process behind her latest novel, The Bride Collector.
In it, winter brings more than fierce Atlantic storms to the fictional tourist town of Kylebeggan in Kerry. On a cold January night, a woman is murdered and laid out in her wedding dress on her bed. And then another woman is discovered murdered in her flat, laid out in the same way.
Weeks later, taxi driver Ellie Gillespie collects a bride-to-be on her hen night and drops her home. Ellie is horrified when this woman too is later discovered dead in her gown.
Ellie also has her own suspicions about the killer. She is persuaded to share her thoughts with investigative journalist Cormac Scully; digging into past secrets of the town, can they figure out who it is before the Bride Collector strikes again?
I am intrigued by the idea of a taxi driver as an amateur detective; Siobhán tells me it was a very deliberate choice.
“I was thinking, there are so many police procedurals out there and there are so many even Irish crime writers who are doing it brilliantly, so I thought I would try and do something a little bit different along the lines of the amateur sleuth,” she says.
“Because so many of us think we are amateur sleuths, especially those of us interested in crime fiction and with all the podcasts that are out there and the true life crime.
“I thought, what kind of character would make a good [sleuth], who would be in a position to know about people’s lives. [Taxi drivers] have people in a car, they might know if they are going on holiday, how long they will be away, if they are having affairs if they are taking people to an assignation, whether they are meeting someone in a car park to exchange brown envelopes — all kinds of skullduggery!”
She highlights how, in real life, gardaí will frequently ask taxi drivers in the vicinity of an incident to contact them with any information they may have, knowing how much drivers see and hear while at work.
“My character, Ellie, feels like she is in a confession box on wheels, people get into the taxi and tell the driver things they wouldn’t tell their closest friends,” Siobhán says.
“Sometimes, obviously, because they have had a few drinks and think, well I mightn’t ever see this person again. So they are privy to a lot of secrets in people’s lives.
“I also think they are people who need to have quite a high level of emotional intelligence. They might get a call to collect someone and the only introduction they have had to this person is through a telephone call, or if they are picking someone up on the street, all they have to go on, on the state of mind of the other person, is how they are moving.
“They have to interpret body language and make a decision — am I going to be safe in this six-foot square vehicle for the duration of a trip. So they have to be able to read people well, they have got to be intuitive and they have got to be able to handle other people.
“I wanted to revisit the trope of the amateur sleuth and I thought the taxi driver would be an interesting way of doing that.”
In The Bride Collector, the gardaí, mayor, and tourist board are desperate to end the negative publicity surrounding a town that relies on the holiday trade; they cannot afford to have a rumour spread that a serial killer is at large. The setting was also carefully chosen.
“So much happens in small towns, I wanted to evoke the sense of a Twin Peaks town in Ireland,” Siobhán explains. “My town is fictional. I picked Kerry because if you mention Kerry here in Ireland or abroad, it conjures up this beautiful scenery — majestic mountains and gorgeous coasts with warm, welcoming people.”
Kylebeggan is an amalgam of a number of well known Kerry towns, including Kenmare Killarney and Dingle.
“You can imagine how the spectre of a serial killer in a tourist town where they rely on tourism for income, the fear it would send rippling through a tourist town,” she says. [These towns] attract medical conferences, they attract people who want to retire somewhere nice.
“I thought it would be interesting to explore a serial killer stalking a tourist town in Ireland. Imagine how local guards on the ground would react if international media descended. In my book, they are not used to dealing with this kind of crime, with any kind of serious crime.
“They want to keep a lid on it and the local people want the bad press to go away. They want the killer to be apprehended and their lives to go back to normal, they feel their names have been dragged through the mire.”
It is important to Siobhán’s plot that it is not just a tourist town, but an Irish small town, with the historical Irish custom of letting sleeping dogs lie.
“It is a town that has secrets,” she says. “There is an Irish saying, Is binn béal ina thost — silence is golden.
“And when people live cheek by jowl with one another it is sometimes a good philosophy to have — not to spread rumours or gossip. It makes for a more pleasant living experience.”
But when people are dying, secrets have a way of surfacing.
This is Siobhán’s fourth novel, with previous books drawing serious plaudits, including from Irish crime star Jo Spain, who praised the ‘vivid characters, great storytelling and a spine-tingling twist’ in her earlier work.
Previously earning a living and travelling the world as a technical writer, Siobhán now loves being able to focus full time on her fiction, although she admits that her characters can come close to taking over her inner world during the creative process.
She highlights the importance of plot and believes characters can in a way be waiting in the subconscious for the right story.
“I start off typically with the plot, then I come to the background and then the characters,” she says.
“I find you have these characters sometimes in the back of your head, that you might not be fully aware of [until] the right plot and the right setting comes along.
“I have this mental image of the balloon figures that you see at a petrol station that collapse and blow up again, it is almost like that — these stick balloon figures in the back of your imagination until the right setting and plot comes along. Then they inflate and have a place in your story.”
A crime aficionado who understands the importance of a great plot and characters and loves to put those characters in difficult situations — it is no wonder Siobhán is enjoying such success as a novelist.