The body of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French filmmaker, was found on the road in front of her house near Schull, County Cork, Ireland, her head bashed in, clad in nightclothes and boots the morning of December 23, 1996. When her body was found by a neighbor, she had been dead for a few hours.
WEST CORK, an audiobook by a British journalist team, Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, chronicles their investigation into her murder. If you write crime fiction and are not a legal professional, this book is a rare opportunity for you to see inside a murder investigation, to hear the voice of the suspect, the witnesses, the loved ones left behind and the police, and to consider the evidence for yourself.
The opening is silly, but it’s worth suffering through. Bungey are Forde are being shown to the murder scene by a local journalist, Ian Bailey, an Englishman who lives nearby. He sounds quite mysterious as he shows them to the house. Lo and behold! He is the suspect.
Bailey is a “blow-in”, the term used by the locals to describe someone who is not from the area, and a strange man. Standing six-feet four inches, he strides around town wearing a cape and carrying a staff, and regales pub-goers with his poetry. Another blow-in, a Welsh painter, allowed him to live in the cottage on her property. Ultimately, he moved into the larger house with her and her three daughters and she became his lover, and his alibi witness.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons to commend the production. Bungey and Forde visited Schull several times and lived there for at least one summer during their investigation. Their tenacity and the depth of their investigation is borne out despite local resistance. In my experience, the Irish are friendly enough but after suffering over a millennium of invasions, they tend to keep newcomers at a distance, particularly those with English accents, like this pair of journalists.
The Irish’s centuries-old resentment against the British is a theme in this story. Ian Bailey, the accused, is a British “blow-in”. Many of the witnesses are blow-ins as well, people from England or other parts of Ireland, which defies disbelief as one would expect that they should be the minority in this remote part of Ireland. And in arguing his defense, Bailey claims that he is a convenient suspect because he is an English blow-in.
The investigation was botched from the beginning by the local Garda Síochána (Guardians of the Peace, i.e. the police) informally known as the “gardai” (pronounced gard-ee). The deceased was left in situ for forty-eight hours pending the arrival of the medical examiner, although he had requested the local authorities to move the body. A throng of curious were allowed near the scene by the police during this time. Footprints were not preserved. No forensic evidence whatsoever was preserved. One theory Bailey offers in his defense is that the gardai intentionally failed to preserve evidence because they were protecting one of their own or someone they knew.
The gardai suspected Bailey from the start. He had been seen at a local festival a few days after the murder with scratches on his hand and a scratch on his forehead. The gardai believed that Madame Toscan du Plantier had gone to bed after speaking with her husband on the telephone 11 p.m. the night before, was roused by a knock on the door or a noise in her yard and when she investigated, an angry confrontation with her killer ensued and that she ran through briars to escape. Bailey’s explanation for the scratches on his hand were that he had climbed twenty feet up a tree to top it for a Christmas tree and drug the top down through the branches. Bailey also claimed that his face was injured when he killed a turkey for Christmas dinner. Photographs of his injuries were never taken.
The gardai neglected to record witness interviews thus opening the door to witnesses denying statements attributed to them. And, in a comedy of errors, the gardai inadvertently wire-tapped themselves – these tape recordings later turned up and were used to argue that the detectives were trying to fit up Bailey for the crime. Bailey’s lawyers argued that the gardai made a “rush to judgment” in suspecting him (because he was British) and never properly considered other candidates.
The prosecutor’s office declined prosecution because of the gardai’s handling of two key witnesses, which even if you believe only the uncontroverted evidence, was sloppy and unprofessional. Although Bailey has never been convicted in Ireland of the crime, it seems the prevailing sentiment throughout the island is that he did it.
After the initial investigation died down, Bailey filed two separate lawsuits, putting himself back into national news. His reason for filing the first suit, a defamation case against the newspapers, was because he stated that without a criminal trial, he could never be exonerated so he was forced to living under the shadow of suspicion for the rest of his life. After he lost the trial, he sued the gardai for malicious prosecution, another case he lost as well. During both cases, new evidence emerged, his alibi was challenged, and witnesses changed their stories.
However, the murdered woman’s family never gave up. They were successful in persuading the French government to prosecute. Bailey was charged, and a warrant was issued for his arrest, which the Irish government refuse to honor. There is a significant possibility that if he left Ireland and went to any other European country, he would be arrested and extradited. Ironically, although the country seems convinced that he is a murderer and would be glad to see the backside of him, he is now trapped in Ireland. The French case is set for trial this summer in abstentia.
For the crime fiction writer, there are several reasons to give WEST CORK a listen. It is primer of how bad police procedure can botch a prosecution. There is also some truly great lawyering. In one clip from one of the trials, an attorney cross-examines Bailey in the deadliest witness examinations I’ve ever heard because the lawyer is so very nice. The interviews and witness testimony provide opportunities to hear the voices of two overly helpful witnesses who turn out to be unreliable, something that happens so regularly that any professional detective would have been immediately suspicious of them. And it is a rare opportunity for someone who is not a legal professional to hear how the accused sounds as he admits some things, denies other things and changes his story.
As a former criminal defense attorney, I have formed a strong opinion as to Bailey’s guilt based upon evidence which I am omitting from this review so as not to spoil the story. Suffice it to say, there is sufficient evidence for the listener to decide.
One slight thing that made me wince is that Bungey and Forde consistently used English terms when referring to the police. Whereas they might consider that made it easier for their British and American audience to understand, that underlying current of “the Brit showing us how it should be done” is echoed by their word choice. Regardless, I gave it a five-star review on Goodreads and Audible.