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.