‘We need to see an end to misogyny and sexual violence against women’

Prolific crime fiction and romcom author Claire McGowan chats to JOANNE SAVAGE about her new expose on the women who went missing in Dublin’s ‘vanishing triangle’

Saturday, 3rd April 2021, 8:00 am
Prodigious talent: Author Claire McGowan

She remembers finishing her first reading text book aged four and being read Roald Dahl’s Mathilda by her mother, before, zealous to finish it, she grabbed hold of the book and devoured it to the last word. By nine she had moved on to mistress of the murder mystery par excellence Agatha Christie and first began dreaming of a career as a writer.

“Because I grew up in the countryside, there was little else to do but read. We only had four TV channels, which would often go fuzzy, friends lived far away and books became my world. The cinema was ten miles away before it closed down so there was really nothing else much to do except read.”

Three decades on and she has carved a niche for herself as one of Northern Ireland’s most prolific crime fiction writers with over ten titles under her belt since publication of her debut The Fall (2013), about two women from different social spheres drawn ineluctably together having witnessed a murder, before beginning her much vaunted Paula Maguire series, now being optioned for TV, which follows a Northern Irish forensic psychologist returned from her training in London to solve local homicide cases while looking after her retired RUC officer father.

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“I wrote on and off until my mid-20s, always wanting to be a writer but sure that people like me, from Irish villages, didn’t do such a thing. That changed when I pushed myself to finish a book and I got published when I was 30.”

Her mastery of constructing a deft puzzle-piece plot that builds gradually towards the resolution of a murder mystery is undeniable, with Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series (part of which was made into a film starring Tom Cruise) describing her as “a knock-out new talent that you should read immediately”.

Today she is part of a cohort of Northern Irish writers who have honed the fiction noir genre to the level of high art, alongside the likes of Adrian McGinty, Stuart Neville and Colin Bateman. Ulster’s plethora of dazzlingly talented crime authors is surely in part a legacy of the Troubles, a cultural and psychological hangover from a history of violence which has left a deep fascination with the darker side of human nature.

It could be a way of reframing or coming to terms with our troubled history that has turned writers like Claire towards themes centred on why people choose to kill, the trauma of bearing witness to crime scenes, the riddles murderers leave behind for eagle-eyed detectives and forensics, the least palatable reaches of human behaviour and psychology.

She attributes her early love of the noir genre to an early attunement to the horrors that flashed across our TV screens in the 80s and early 90s before we reached the hard-won peace we have today. For a long time in Northern Ireland time was haunted by atrocities, gunmen, semtex, murders that remained stubbornly unsolved.

McGowan, 39, who read French and English at Oxford University and studied in France and China before settling in London and devoting herself to fiction, muses: “Writers growing up here we were all saturated with crime and definitely developed a heightened awareness of what was happening politically compared to young people elsewhere in the UK perhaps. But then for me I always really enjoyed the puzzle and mystery aspect of crime fiction, setting up a plot that builds suspense, moving towards these final revelations. I love a strong story, and I think that is something that crime fiction always delivers on.”

Why are we so morbidly tantalised by stories of murder, deception, crime, this voyeuristic exploration of the darkness?

“I think a lot of people are fascinated by murder and we can see that with the popularity of crime fiction and true crime in literature, TV and cinema. I think a lot of people are maybe reluctant to admit their fascination with these themes, because they are perceived as sensationalist. But it is undeniable that this darkness is compelling, otherwise we would not have the noir industry that we do.”

Perhaps it is because crime fiction allows us to enjoy that catharsis of pity and fear that Aristotle saw as one function of the human experience of art.

In any case, to produce quality work in the genre involves, says McGowan, an ability to understand “criminology, criminal psychology, police procedure and forensics - you have to keep up with all the latest developments.”

Claire talks about collaboration as part of her creative process, but despite her prodigiousness - when you add in the romcoms she has also written under the pseudonym Eva Woods you get a whopping 16 published titles (though there are others that haven’t seen the light of day) - she is not given to the kind of military discipline in word-generation that you might naturally assume.

“I have a lot of friends who write crime fiction and we discuss things and swap ideas. People go about it in different ways. I usually go about it quite organically and hope it all comes together somehow, which usually it does. But others will use lots of spread sheets and plan out every piece of the puzzle and narrative twist.

“I don’t produce work in a very regimented way. I’m not the kind of writer who gets up at 6am and gets straight into it. I’m not good in the mornings at all, actually. It takes me ages to get out of bed. But I am incredibly strict with myself when it comes to deadlines, I wrote four books last year. But at the minute there is a lot of faffing, especially under lockdown.”

But faffing aside, McGowan is now at the culmination of a years of research for her new non-fiction work, The Vanishing Triangle. The audio book is about the disappearance of eight women in an 800 square mile area of Dublin in the 1990s - ‘the vanishing triangle’ - and peruses the circumstances of these disappearances and the troubling notion that misogyny, sexual violence and murder are far more prevalent in Ireland and Britain than police records and public perception may suggest.

“There were a lot of disappearances of women in Dublin in the mid-90s and around. There was speculation that the disappearance of certain women were linked and there was a suspicion that there may have been a serial killer behind this,” says McGowan.

“We don’t even know if they were murders and this is the big problem with it, because these eight women simply disappeared and bodies were never found. So with no evidence the cases remained unsolved.

“What drew me in was this idea that there could have been a serial killer in Ireland and nobody even realised.

“Ireland, I’ve always felt, and I think this is how it is generally perceived, is generally a very safe place to live in if you weren’t involved in politics or in any way caught up in the Troubles. If you lived around Dublin it was unlikely that you would have been drawn into that Troubles-related web of criminality.

“The idea that the disappearances were connected or that these women could have been murdered by the same killer without anyone even realising was just very shocking.”

There was some drive to solve these cases. The Gardai did set up a cold case unit at the end of the 90s to look into it and worked on researching this for years. Ultimately, they couldn’t find anything.

But, continues McGowan, “at the time when the disappearances were reported they were not taken seriously enough. This was partly to do with misogyny and partly because this idea of a serial killer targeting multiple women was something that the Gardai simply did not think could happen in Ireland. They actually said that to some of the families of these women, ‘That doesn’t happen here’. But what if it did? They didn’t see a sexually-motivated abduction by a stranger as possible here. So they were thinking these women ran away or killed themselves or something of that nature.

There didn’t seem to be any links between these women or any similarities in circumstance or character. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it. Yet they all went missing within this densely populated area.

“Also I found there were a lot of murders in the same area as well, around the same time or just before, of women who were found buried in the Wicklow mountains. And most of these murders have never been solved either.”

So with scant evidence, and despite forensic analysis of the facts, what does McGowan conclude?

“I’ve put forward some theories about what might have happened, but obviously without evidence it remains unsolvable. I don’t think the same person was responsible for all of these cases. But I think some of them were. When you look into some of the cases there is a really obvious suspect who was known to some of the women. But, I’ve also considered, what if these women were killed not by one serial killer but instead by people they knew who were just never convicted?”

We think of Ireland as a friendly, safe country where serial killers are not at large. But surely given human nature this is not the case?

“What I have uncovered is that there were and are huge levels of misogyny and sexual violence against women in Ireland, and I found a lot more incidents of this recorded than I had actually imagined took place.

“My theory is that maybe five of these women were taken off the street by the same person. But I also found lots of stranger murders of women around this time and within this area that show that the idea that ‘these things don’t happen in Ireland’ is simply not true.

“I wanted to bring these cases back on the radar and then try to ask, what are the underlying causes of sexually motivated murder or violence? Is it because offenders aren’t punished harshly enough when they first do something? Is it to do with parole not being strict enough? Is it to do with misogyny? Is it to do with very poor prosecution of sexual violence?”

Though McGowan does not entirely buy into the idea that we continue to live in an oppressive patriarchy that all too easily victimises women - she grew up in a society always believing she was as empowered as any man and that her ambitions were not in any way limited by her gender - she does acknowledge that misogyny remains prevalent and must be stamped out wherever it raises its ugly head.

“I went to an all girls school and we were always told that there was nothing we could not do and women today have broken down barriers in so many different ways. But there is still a problem with sexual violence and how it is prosecuted within the criminal justice system.

“I also think as a society we need to have a more nuanced discussion of the issue of sexual consent.

“I’ve been working on this book for three years but now; unfortunately, it’s even more timely with the murder we had here in London of Sarah Everard at the beginning of March. Of course sexual violence against women needs to stop and by drawing attention to the vanishing triangle cases I hope to put the issue back at the forefront of public debate.”

The Vanishing Triangle by Claire McGowan is available as an audio book via Audible.