In case you haven’t noticed, true crime is having a bit of a moment. True, the genre never really went away, sitting as it does at the nexus of the murder mystery and human interest reporting. But it seems to have experienced a renaissance parallel with the rise of the podcast as a medium. It’s a lower barrier to entry — even if you don’t have the patience to read true crime reporting or watch it on television, surely you can still listen to it while you drive to work or do chores around the house. I’ll admit I’m a devotee.
On the heels of Serial, Dirty John, S-Town, In The Dark, et al (I wrote about some of my favorites from last year here) comes Audible’s latest series, West Cork. Actually, “on the heels” may not be the right phrase, seeing as how the series is the product of three years of reporting, by hosts Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde, based in the UK, who have previously worked on stories for This American Life and documentaries for the BBC.
In West Cork, Bungey and Forde dive into the brutal 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a 39-year-old French film producer married to French film producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, two days before Christmas in a remote part of southwest Ireland frequented by eccentrics and vacationers. A brutal killing in such a small community led to an “East Berlin-like” atmosphere of mutual suspicion and rolling denunciations, in a place previously defined by the old “no one locks their doors,” cliché.
Suspicions eventually focused most intently on Ian Bailey, an English eccentric who had come to West Cork to reinvent himself as a Celtic bard and seems to be using the case to revive his once-promising career in journalism. The question becomes, are Bailey’s eccentricities the warning signs of a murderer, or do they simply remind us of all the things we don’t like about ourselves and make him an easy scapegoat?
I won’t pretend West Cork offers a clear answer. In a world of twist endings like Dirty John or S-Town, and advocacy journalism like Serial or Making A Murderer, West Cork is neither. If you work in long-form crime reporting, that’s just not something you can control. You should know going in that West Cork isn’t about the big twist. It’s a story about people and place.
With West Cork premiering this week, I spoke to Bungey and Forde by phone from their home in the UK, about what it’s like devoting so much time to a subject, and trying to wrestle down a story you don’t can’t control. (Listen to an exclusive clip from the show below. The conversation that follows has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
So, I guess the big question is, how did you know when you were finished?
Sam Bungey: We spent three years researching and producing the story, which we didn’t expect to do at the beginning. But, as we explained in the introduction, we got sucked into a rabbit hole and every person we spoke to unlocked a new aspect of the story that we thought that we had to explore. It’s a case that’s been going for 21 years, and when we got involved, we thought we were initially reexamining a cold case. But once you’re involved in it you notice that things change. The story is kind of still alive. It’s an open case, and significant developments happened while we were doing the story, so we were able to document that. So there’s a bit of present tense to it.
As to the suspect, he told us at one point that it is a story with such runs and rants, and at a certain point he advised us to put a pin it. It felt like what we’d wanted to do is properly reinvestigate… chronologically tell what happened after the point that we got involved. And then this thing happened that we wanted to document too. And then we thought we just have to leave it, even though everything’s still unresolved.
Jennifer Forde: And things are still happening now, but it is … After covering something so in-depth and feeling you have to leap into action anytime anything happens, it is quite liberating knowing that now you’re kind of off that train and the story. Who knows how long it will unfold? That’s one of the great tragedies of the case. But it is quite liberating knowing that we did pick a point that came towards what felt like a natural end, and that you can’t follow it forever.
How did you first come to the story?
Bungey: Well, Jennifer and I read a short piece in a UK newspaper about the case from the point of view of the suspect’s upcoming lawsuit against the police force in Ireland and the state, the Irish state, who he was claiming had wrongfully arrested him and then subjected him to decades of harassment and mental torture. So, that was intriguing enough for us to go and check out the trial. And when we got there we found a much more complex story. We had a couple of curious and very interesting run-ins with the suspect, and we were hooked at that point.
Part of this story is that the suspect claims that he’s had his life ruined partly by irresponsible journalism. What are the challenges in taking on a story like that for you? Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility to get things right?
Forde: Absolutely, but it was interesting because that gave us a reason to structure it in the way we structured it, and it gave us a motivation, to try and strip out all of the rumors and misinformation that has dogged the case over the years. We wanted to go to witnesses and to try and get as much firsthand reporting as we could, and to lay it out chronologically. It just is one of those stories that there’s been periods of activity, and then a lull, and then another period of activity, and then another- something new that happens and then it all goes quiet for another couple of years, and then it picks up again. And every time it happens a new round of information gets let out into the public domain, and then that sits there, and then awhile later something else maybe contradicts what you already thought. It’s hard to keep it all in your head.
So our intention was, because of all that sort of drip, then race, then a drip fed into the media into that length of time meant that it’s sort of hard to get a really good sense of where it is, and what’s happening, and what happened, and how much you can re-say or really know. So, in response to that, we felt that it would be a worthwhile exercise to just tell the story chronologically, to put it all side-by-side, to really interrogate all of that stuff, the kind of tropes around the case that people tell you, and some of the craziest rumors, some of the first things you hear about when you bring this case up with people in Ireland. There’s definitely things that suck you in, and they were the things we wanted to go and find out, well, how much of this is true.
What’s West Cork like as a place? I assume part of what drew you to it was the setting.
Bungey: Okay, so about West Cork.
Forde: Yeah. Physically, it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s wild and rugged, and it has lots of amazing history to the place, and for decades has been this sort of place that’s drawn people to it. It’s sort of been this blank canvas. It’s remote and has a very traditional population of fishermen and farmers. Then, in the ’70s, people started coming from all over Europe to drop out, or reinvent themselves. There are probably comparisons all over the world, where you get these towns, or places rise up on the edges. Somebody we were speaking to said that Oregon is a little like it, where you get to–
Bungey: –or Alaska.
Forde: Or Alaska, yeah. So I think that all over the world there are these places right on the fringes that end up attracting a kind of motley crew of people who are drawn for a myriad of different reasons. And it was this place that ended up… It was incredibly peaceful. It was crime-free and the kind of old cliché that people don’t lock their doors. One guy told us that back before the murder that you’d be more anxious… That you wouldn’t even think of locking your door, that you’d be more anxious that somebody would stop by and you would be out and they wouldn’t be able to let themselves in and have a cup of tea and wait for you to get back, than you would about actually getting robbed. It just didn’t enter their minds that crime was something they had to worry about. And then the murder happened, and completely changed everybody’s thinking about this quote-unquote safe place they all thought they were in.
Is there a big contrast between the people who come in and, are, maybe eccentric and the people who live there who don’t seem that way?
Bungey: This is a point that’s interesting from the point of view of the investigation, because as an isolated rural community, a collection of towns, West Cork was this really tight-knit place where everyone knew everyone and where they’d be any given night, and that would feed in to the way that the place was policed. You had that and, then quite suddenly you had this influx of people who no one really knew much about, whether the people wanted to come with a blank slate and start again, or just because it was an upset to that established cohesiveness of the community. There was that essential difference of, like… Everyone was accounted for, and then these new people weren’t accounted for, which makes investigating a case much more complex.
Forde: But I think that it’s easy to… We sort of wondered exactly about that, about your question of whether there’s a tension between the local community and the blow-ins. It seems like there were ways of getting it right and ways of getting it wrong as a newcomer. I think the Irish are quite- not wary, but quite short, they don’t have much time for people with tickets on themselves, the kind of people who are maybe a little pretentious — in West Cork and I think in Ireland in general.
So, I think that things like… It wasn’t so much a tension, but I’m sure they’d roll their eyes at a lot of the people coming in, with their basket weaving and their intentions to live off the land, having given up some sort of life in the city. But there isn’t a dark tension or anything there. I think everyone does get on and one of the things that people talk about being so magical about the place is that you go to pub and you end up… For a place that is so remote and shouldn’t be as cosmopolitan as it is, it is amazingly diverse, and you can end up speaking to anybody at the bar from all sorts of different backgrounds. That’s something they sort of cherish and celebrate.
So, tell me about Ian Bailey as a character. It seems that a big part of the story of West Cork is trying to pin down what flavor of unlikable he is.
Bungey: [Laughs.] Yeah. You know, he’s a curious guy in an extreme situation. I think anyone who — and this is guilt or innocence — as far as anyone who’s in [that] position would have to wonder about how they’d behave. And that’s one of the main things we spend our time thinking about. Like how would we have done this if we felt ourselves suspected of this horrendous crime? He’s complicated, clearly there’s dark sides to his character and, again, that’s aside from guilt or innocence. But we found him fascinating. He is someone we interviewed at length, and he is gracious with his time, very generous. We got to know his partner, too. It’s not what we set out to do, to do a character study just of him. We wanted to tell Sophie’s story and the story of West Cork, how they experienced this thing. But he’s a very interesting guy. So it’s something we wanted to recreate, our experience, and kind of give that to the listener, if it’s possible to have them have a look at this odd little guy, just like we have. Hopefully it’s just as fascinating and frustrating as it was for us, because you kind of go back-and-forth on it.
Forde: And he was incredibly generous with his time, and gracious with us. You can read into all of that what you will.
Forde: Well, you know, it’s because whatever you think, there’s a reason for it, that’s he an innocent man curing his name and we’re two journalists who have are completely out of the Irish newspaper scene, and are telling him that we just want to sit there and let him tell his story. So from that perspective, it’s a valid thing for him to have embarked on, or because he — as people have claimed, and he himself has claimed throughout the years — he definitely enjoys part of the media circus. He gets a kick out of it, or that he’s kind of trying to control the story. There’s all sort of things you could read into it, his generosity with his time, but he was always very gracious with us.
I mean, the classic danger there is getting lost inside one character’s bullshit, I guess. How did you avoid that?
Bungey: It was partly just sort of out of necessity, as in the danger wasn’t there to an extent because of the scope of the story and the other fascinating elements to it. We wondered about whether people in West Cork would be standoffish, would be sick of talking about this unresolved crime and going through the story again with those who were close to the case. But we found that we got more and more access to people who were happy to talk to us, and they ended up giving us a whole new dimension to the case that naturally diverted us away from the suspect.
Forde: Do you mean to get lost inside of one character’s bullshit like we would be distracted by it or was it, maybe, he would end up authoring the piece by the backdoor or something?
Yeah, mostly that.
Forde: It’s definitely a good question and definitely something… Because, you know, that’s also part of the story, is whether that is what he was doing when he was guiding at the back pre-arrest, when we was guiding incoming journalists around West Cork as they were investigating the murder, before any arrest, in the very early days of the investigation. This is all stuff that’s in the podcast. But I really do hope that we didn’t do too much time with him, and it was definitely something that we had in mind going into this story. Whose is this story? Is this about Ian or is it about Sophie? And ultimately we came down on the side that’s it about the place, and the impact that this terrible tragedy has on this place. But it’s so important, as in all true crime podcasts… You know, these women didn’t all die so that we could make podcasts about it. So it’s really important not to lose sight of the terrible tragedy at the heart of this, and the terrible tragedy that Sophie’s parents are living every day, that there has been no justice for them, that they will probably die without ever seeing anybody behind bars for it. We just had really in our minds not to get swept up in the saga of it all, and the sort of circus that whirled around Ian and his various investigations.
So tell me about the victim. How famous was she in France?
Forde: It seems like she was mostly famous by association through her husband. From what we’ve heard, her family was a reasonably well-connected family, but it was her marriage to her husband, Daniel Toscan du Plantier, that made her a society figure. He was one of France’s most famous film producers. He’d passed away I think in 2006?
Forde: Oh, 2003 he died. But he was one of France’s most famous film producers, had worked on things like Cyrano de Bergerac, and he’s also dated quite well-known women — Isabella Rossellini. Toscan du Plantier was a household name. So because she had the name when she was murdered it was a huge story in France, and I think it still is, as it is in Ireland.
So I feel like with true crime a lot of the time when people listen to it, they’re looking for a big twist or a big ending with closure. What do you promise when you’re trying to tell a story like this if you can’t give the big twist ending?
Bungey: Before getting to twist endings, I think that was another reason that we wanted to structure this story from the point-of-view of how West Cork experienced it, so, chronologically. Part of the reason is it has featured so many absurdly dramatic twists and turns, like, fundamental changes where you must view the case based on these revelations. It seemed like that was how we had to tell it, and when those things happened I think you have to totally reimagine how you’re thinking about essential characters in the story, and the information you thought that you could hold onto in terms of making a decision about how you felt about the suspect and what happened to the victim. And those things were things we found fascinating, still grappling with the truth behind them, when we put the final word on our series. It’s a case where nothing’s resolved, everything’s still up in the end, there are so few facts you can truly rely on. We just wanted to present that in a way that listeners can then grapple with, so a sort of anti-resolution, which is probably an anti-sales pitch, but we find it fascinating. We’re looking forward to a break, but I’m sure we’ll be back.
But there is this other thing, the fact that something major happened. If you listened to the series you know that [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS].
Bungey: Which, after 21 years of no one being charged with anything in this case, a pretty big deal.
Forde: Yeah, I think that it felt like — as you say — it’s a big worry when you embark on something like this, that there’s realistically a chance of finding that nothing hatches, or is shed, or getting an on-tape confession or something. You can’t bank on something like that. We were fortunate that suddenly one of the big things that happen once in a while in this case every few years happened on our watch. And that suddenly something was happening for us to document. And it did all feel like it could be this big showdown that for 20 years people have been talking about, wanting, and throughout you can argue that the case has gone on for so long because there has been no day of reckoning, and that suddenly it looks like that might happen, and it might bring about some kind of closure or peace for people involved.
Bungey: One more thing is that this crime has been poured over by professional investigators, or teams of them, for 21 years, and that includes the Irish Guard, who… you know, the Guards have been involved in the case, and then international investigations too, in France. So, we went setting out to pick over this cold case. We thought there was a value in laying everything out and, as everyone told us, take out the rumors, investigate the truth of certain things, and get people to talk about their direct experience, and then hopefully the result would be a worthwhile ride for the listener.