Although West Cork is a true story, and there has been recent media coverage, I’m going to keep this review spoiler-free. Like many people, I came to it knowing nothing and was able to appreciate the unfolding of the story.
West Cork is a true-crime audiobook/podcast about an unsolved murder which took place in the remote Irish village of Schull in 1996.
In the 1970s Schull began to attract ‘blow-ins’ from the rest of Ireland, Britain and beyond. Some were people looking for an alternative lifestyle, others were perhaps trying to escape trouble at home. Later, the artistic community they had created attracted more well-heeled people looking for holiday homes.
Sophie Toscan du Plantier was a French documentary maker married to a high-profile film producer, who enjoyed the tranquillity and anonymity of her cottage in Schull. She was staying there alone when she was brutally murdered just before Christmas in the lane outside her home.
The documentary borrows many of the techniques of crime fiction to keep the listener hooked. Bungey and Forde begin by telling you the crime is unsolved, but one man is widely suspected and has brought legal action as a result. They then present the voices of a number of people from the community before revealing who the suspect is. This is clever because it makes you question your own perceptions. Up until then those voices had all seemed equally reliable and credible, now what you have heard so far is undermined. Who is lying and who is to be believed?
People describe how the community’s sense of itself was fractured. Before the murder they believed their remoteness offered protection from the ills of society, afterwards it meant vulnerability. The romantic ideal of living in a small town where everyone knows everyone has its downside – what if you genuinely believe the neighbour you have to see every day has got away with murder? What if you are the one accused?
The structure also has echoes of a courtroom drama, even though there has never been a murder trial. When the main suspect is named, the story focuses on all the reasons why the police believe he did it and the evidence that supports their supposition. The case is quite persuasive for the listener. But then later episodes go through all the flaws in the police’s investigation and methodology, and question the reliability of one witness in particular. It is then quite possible to see that, while the main suspect has many unappealing qualities, that does not necessarily make them a murderer.
The Gardai, the Irish police, are also on trial here, for the many failures in procedure as well as some poor luck, which meant that no forensic evidence was gathered. (The only specialist scene of crime team was based in Dublin, over two hundred miles away, and it took them twelve hours to reach the village.) There are also recordings which show, in that age-old tradition, that the Gardai were convinced they knew who was responsible, and looked for evidence to confirm it, rather than following up all leads, which meant a number of opportunities to gain reliable and timely evidence were missed.
Of course, this is not fiction so there is no neat conclusion, but the series neatly doubles back to Sophie’s family and how they have dealt with the aftermath of the crime, reminding us that there are real victims, and that they are still living with the consequences of this crime.