Kill Your Darlings joined Sisters in Crime last month for their event Past Imperfect. Sisters in Crime have been celebrating women’s crime writing since 1991, and in this event they celebrated the debut novels of Dervla McTiernan (The Rúin), Sarah Schmidt (See What I Have Done) and Katherine Kovacic (The Portrait of Molly Dean). Listen in as they discuss the mix of historical facts and speculation that fuelled their criminally good reads with chair Robyn Walton. This event was recorded live at Melbourne’s Rising Sun Hotel on April 6 2018.
Meaghan Dew: Hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. Today on the podcast we have a recording of a very special event from Sisters in Crime. Sisters in Crime have been celebrating women’s crime writing since 1991. The organisation hosts a busy yearly calendar of events including interview panels, debates and book launches, as well as running an annual short story competition and the Davitt Awards, which celebrate the best crime books published by Australian women.
KYD joined Sisters in Crime last month for their event Past Imperfect, when authors Dervla McTiernan, Sarah Schmidt and Katherine Kovacic discussed how their debut novels shine light on unsolved crimes both real and imagined.
Robyn Walton: My name is Robyn Walton. A topic for tonight is delving into the swirl of history, mystery, intrigue and any other large words you can think of like that. So in other words, our three guest writers have dipped into the past for their plots. So we’re very happy to speak with them and I’ll be introducing each of them in a minute.
First of all though, I will do our normal Welcome to Country. At the outset as usual, we respectfully acknowledge the Yalukut Weelam of the Boon Wurrung clan. We pay our respects to their elders both past and present. We acknowledge and uphold their continuing relationship to this land. And we welcome any indigenous people who may be here this evening. Thank you.
I’ll now introduce these three writers. I’ll start directly beside me, shall I, and go across? Which I think – no it’s not in alpha order. So who knows what order it’s in.
Katherine Kovacic is directly beside me. Her book is The Portrait of Molly Dean. It’s very recently released. It’s flying up the charts over at Readings in St. Kilda because it’s set around Elwood and St. Kilda, so anyone who’s local or a Melbournian will really probably enjoy this one.
Next to Katherine is Sar-ah – or Sarah? You prefer Sarah? – Sarah Schmidt. Sarah was going to be a guest last year and unfortunately had to drop out, but we didn’t let her go, we brought her back this year. Which I think is even better, because her book is not one of those ones which sank without trace, but in fact it’s grown in lustre virtually every month since then. It’s won a number of awards. It’s just been listed for an international award for women’s writing. She also received an award over in Adelaide [applause] – Yes, yes! And I think a record number of reviews in mainstream Australian publications for a book by a woman. So she’s really doing well, you know. It’s an excellent book, I recommend it. It’s one of those books that has its own legs. I think it grows and it grows on you. So that’s her one: See What I Have Done.
And then our third guest is Dervla McTiernan – did I say that correctly? Yes?
Dervla McTiernan: Yes, beautifully.
RW: Good to know. She has a delightful Irish accent, you’l hear in a moment, but she’s, these days, an Australian resident. We’re very lucky to have you. And she comes from West Australia, but she can talk about that if she wants to. And she’s written a book called The Ruin, which is set back in Ireland in Galway and that region, so she’ll no doubt answer questions – if you wish to – that get more specifically into the Irish context of that.
So I think we’re almost ready to start answering questions. Anything else that we should do first? No? We’re almost there. Okay. Let’s go to some questions and we can hear your voices.
I thought the first thing we should do is get this history of each author’s story sorted so that we know in our minds what’s happening in these books, because otherwise confusion will reign. So I was going to ask each person to tell us about the past event which is vital to their story. I think it’s typically a very horrible event. It’s either a murder or a death which is suspicious or something equally unpleasant. So I think each of them may like to spend a few minutes and engage us with that and then it may get lighter from then on. So, anyone can start and continue.
DM: I will dive in as the person on the far left. So my book is called The Ruin and it kicks off with a prologue which is set twenty years before the main action. So in this prologue we see a very young police officer, a guard that in Ireland who is sent out – his very first week out of training college – to respond to what he thinks is going to be a very standard domestic call out. And he’s searching a country lane in Ireland for this house. He finds a crumbling old Georgian hunting lodge. The kind of house that, really, is almost rotting into the ground. And in that house he finds two children: Maude and Jack. Maude is fifteen and Jack is five. And much to his horror he finds the dead body of their mother.
So that night he takes Maude and Jack to the local hospital, from which Maude disappears and isn’t heard from again for twenty years. And Cormac Reilly, being very young and inexperienced and not really knowing how to move things forward, doesn’t ever really get to the bottom of what happened that night. There’s a sort of a facile explanation to it all, but he knows he hasn’t heard the truth but he doesn’t know how to move things forward so he moves on with his career.
And then when the main action of the book starts twenty years later he’s coming back to Galway to work again and this case crosses his path. And he has another opportunity to work, but this time at a very different level. So through the book you find out the truth of what happened in this incident in the past, and also it’s connected to a current crime. So you see both of them resolve through the book.
Sarah Schmidt: Well then! So, my book See What I Have Done is based on the infamous Lizzie Borden case. And I often find it difficult to think about what is actually what I have fictionalised and what is the truth. So the true thing is – so back in 1892 in Fall River in Massachusetts on 4 August, Lizzie walks into the sitting room of her house and discovers her father brutally murdered with an axe. So much so to the side of his head that his eyeball was resting on his shoulder – it’s pretty gross.
And she calls out to their Irish maid Bridget, who was upstairs – she had been ill that day as had a number of the other house, uh – I was gonna say ‘household items’, they’re people! [laughter] The people in the house! – had been vomiting. And so she calls up to Bridget, ‘Come quickly, someone has killed Father.’ Bridget comes down. They raise the alarm, you know, trying to get the police to come – who were out on a picnic on this particular day, but that’s beside the point.
And so Bridget goes out and it’s in these moments where Lizzie is alone in the house, her next door neighbour comes over and says, ‘What’s the matter Lizzie?’ and she says, ‘Oh, do come in. Someone’s killed Father’ as if she was inviting her in for tea. Eventually the police arrive and, not long after that, they discover body number two. Lizzie’s stepmother Abby was upstairs in the guest bedroom and she had been hit on the back of the head eighteen times to the point where there was a bit of the skull, from the front, had landed on the other side of the room. And so basically, that’s where the story begins.
So the people in the household at the time was Lizzie, her very odd uncle John who had come the night before unannounced without any luggage. He was just going to stay for a period of time. He was the brother of Lizzie’s – and her sister Emma who will come back later, she died when they were younger and he was her brother. Also in the house was Andrew, Lizzie’s elderly father. He was quite wealthy; in today’s money he would worth about 14 million dollars – guess what the motive may have been? And then of course there was Bridget. And so basically, the police arrive, Lizzie starts saying a whole bunch of stuff about where she was, where she wasn’t. She couldn’t remember! Maybe she did? Maybe she doesn’t? Maybe it’s the morphine talking? She doesn’t know!
Meanwhile, Emma, the older sister – so Lizzie is 32 at the time when this occurs and Emma, her sister, is 42 – she’s visiting friends. So a telegram goes sent out about 16 miles away to say ‘There’s been an accident, come home’, but she had no idea what the accident was. So she arrives home and there are like hundreds and hundreds of people out the front. Because the Bordens, even though they were very rich and well-known, they lived on the workers’ side of town because Andrew as quite tight with his money. And so, you know, this is kind of known to maybe not please Lizzie and Emma so much.
Eventually – and the police kind of go, ‘There is no sign of a break in and there is no murder weapon found.’ And then, days later, Lizzie is accused of the crime and she is locked up in gaol for the amount of time that it takes to do the trial and she is eventually acquitted. And that’s kind of where really the story ends for her, except for – most of the town believed she got away with murder. And so that’s what I decided to write about. The end [laughter].
RW: Tell me the beginning!
Katherine Kovacic: My book is The Portrait of Molly Dean and it’s about Mary Molly Dean who was a real person, she was a Melbourne girl. In 1930 she was 25 years old, a school teacher, but she had aspirations to become a writer, a journalist and a novelist. She had the title of her novel, no more that we know of, and she’d had a few things published. And she’d moved from working class area of Elwood, where she was still living with her strange mother – who again, we’ll come back to – into the bohemian art circles of Melbourne. And the art circles of Melbourne in 1930 were very tight, very interesting and very slightly left of centre than the rest of Melbourne society.
But on 21 November in 1930, when she was walking home from a theatre event with some of the arts circle, Molly Dean was attacked and bashed and brutally murdered. She was left for dead in a pool of blood in a laneway in Elwood. And while there were a cast of suspects, half of them related to her, no one was ever found guilty of the crime.
So in my world, 70 years later, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of Molly Dean. She buys it, thinking she’s going to be able to turn a quick buck – finding some juicy details about the Molly Dean story and selling it with that sort of a provenance.
But as she begins to dig into the story she becomes more and more intrigued with what happened to Molly Dean. And then she finds out that someone else is also after the painting – and that someone may have connections to the past and may have a very strong interest in keeping that past buried. And that’s sort of where the story moves on from.
So we follow Molly Dean in the last months of her life in 1930, and we also follow Alex in 1999 trying to figure out what happened to Molly and hang on to the painting at the same time.
SS: Shorter version, but yes [laughter].
RW: Oh dear. That’s marvelous – that virtually convinces you to buy each of the books I should think. I thought of a question for the two who wrote about actual crimes, or real life crimes shall we say, because obviously they would’ve had to invent some details or maybe they imported things that were not actually there to amplify the story. So I was going to ask them, would you want to fess up to that sort of thing – what you’ve added or changed? For example, Sarah introduces a character called Benjamin, who I don’t think is every in any court transcript or anything like that. I don’t know if he’s a real person or if he’s almost an alter ego, a sort of dark spirit who comes in on the train and leaves again. I wondered about that and I wondered about Katherine’s, whether there was somebody in yours that, you know, wasn’t there but you’ve invented?
SS: Well, yeah! Well Benjamin’s completely fictional. So when I first kind of came across this case – so the book took me 11 years to write, because I had no idea what I was doing. And you know, every time you finish a draft you realise what the book is actually about and what you kind of want to do and so you just start building these levels and these layers and you bring in different characters.
And so in the beginning I just had Lizzie. She and I had a strange relationship. And at some stage I realised that she was never going to tell the story that I would like her to – and so, you know how they are [laughter]. I do it all the time, hmm. And so I was thinking, for me this book – so I wasn’t actually interested in the crime or the trial at all. What I was actually interested is: Okay, if this woman did this, why would someone kill their parents? That’s the kind of the first question that I had. And then, what does that say about this particular family? And so that’s kind of where I wanted to go.
And so very early on I realised this is actually a book about what happens to a family when they no longer love each other. And so I, because I think one of the – I probably shouldn’t say this in public, but I will – one of the scariest things you can have, actually, is a family. [Laughter]. I don’t mean that in, you know! I don’t mean to say – well I do mean to say that. But I think for me this idea that you would have an outsider coming to attack you, when actually the person that you probably should be most frightened of is in your house, whether that’s an abusive parent or, you know, maybe and axe murdering daughter. And so it was during this time – [laughter] Maybe! Who can say?
So it was around this time that I was starting to think about the idea of justice and retribution and how sometimes we can identify with maybe one kind of criminal and not the other. And so that’ show Benjamin was born, because I wanted him to be like a parallel character to Lizzie. And then they took their, you know, a whole bunch of life. But that’s kind of how it went. I don’t know if I answered a question, but I made a lot of things up. I made a lot of things up. [Laughter].
KK: I used a lot of the real characters in Molly Dean’s life – and we’ll talk about her mother when we talk about creepy families.
SS: Please! Please.
KK: But, because her murder was never solved, I didn’t want to start with her death and that being all that she got out of it and her being the subject – so rather, the object rather than the subject of the discussion. So I’ve given a few extra characters to her world so that she has more people to interact with other than her creepy family. But all Alex Clayton’s world is completely fictitious.
RW: I suppose a complementary question then for Dervla. You’ve invented a scenario of a death. Now, did that tap into things you saw as a lawyer in Ireland or things in small town life? What happened there?
DM: Uh, not really, because I was a commercial lawyer, which is [laughter] the most boring job in the world. Unless you want to read a novel about 200 page contracts, which not many people want to do strangely enough. So no, it wasn’t really related to work.
I mean I had colleagues who were criminal defence lawyers, so I did head from them – you know, you have coffee or lunch and you hear some of the stories about what really happens in the back room from defence teams, which is a terrifying thing to hear, to tell you the truth, because it is so far from what you would hope it would be. And you know, what you learn really is that civil litigation and criminal litigation are the same. It’s a game. You know, it’s a game. It’s played for the highest stakes and justice is never found there, you know, it really isn’t.
So I think that feeds into the book because it certainly – if you’re going to look at it at the level of theme you would say that that’s probably consistent. There are no, unfortunately, there are no easy answers and it seems that there is no true moral authority anymore. People have to find their own way and find their own way to try to make the best decisions they can. So I don’t think it was influenced by work directly, but perhaps indirectly.
RW: And how did you devise that actual scenario? That woman dead in that derelict but fine, originally a fine old house?
DM: I think it came from just the history of the family, you know? When you’re writing a book – at least when I was starting out and completely clueless – you’re starting with a blank page and maybe the beginnings of an idea. And you’re trying to write this story and it really is like pushing a boulder uphill.
And what I learned, at least for me – every writer has their own method – but for me I needed to know the characters very well. I needed to know their backstory. I needed to know everything that had happened to them and their lives, whether or not any of that actually appears on the page, because then they start to feel like real people. When they start to feel like real people you can put them in a scene and they just take over. You know, they almost write themselves because you – you create a scenario, you drop them in and then they react like real people.
So for me, I’m – Maude was always going to be a very important character and I needed to have her whole family story in order to make her make sense. So her mother and her mother’s life became important to me. And her mother’s death is obviously very important to who Maude is and the decisions she made and what happened to life after that. So it was really driven by the character and trying to create a character who meant something to me.
RW: On my second reading I realised the strength of the Maude character, I have to say. I didn’t realise that it came in that order. Okay. Probably a related question again, but I saw an article you wrote in the Irish Times and you said something about the – your plot had come out of the economic and social circumstances of those times. It’s where – like our Royal Commission into institutionalised responses to criminal child assault and those sorts of things – there were similar issues in Ireland and economic problems and all those categories of things. So yours was a fertile ground for that.
RW: And the other two, also, I wanted the similar question, did you – the culture and society that your people were in, produce the crime in other words, or shape it. Yeah, so, Dervla maybe’s got the inside running first on that.
DM: Yeah, I mean, I was born in Ireland in 1976 and grew up in the 80s and 90s. You know, 80s Ireland was a very poor country, 90s it was a very wealthy country for a short time. And it changed very quickly in that time frame.
But one of the things that happened was we started to hear the truth of what was going on in Ireland in the 50s, 60s and 70s and a lot of it was not good news. You know, we heard the truth of a lot of the scandals that we’ve all heard about all around the world. The child sex abuse that was happening within the Church and how the Church responded to that, but also in Ireland we had an issue with industrial schools.
Industrial schools were huge in the 50s and 60s and went into the 70s a little bit, but basically what happened was the state took children who were, who belonged to poor families. If your family was impoverished your children were taken, or if a parent died, and you were put in an industrial school, which was run by the Catholic Church, which was paid by the state to do this. And they were absolutely horrific places. Children were horribly neglected, but they were also physically abused and there was also some sexual abuse.
And when it all came out in Ireland about this, the response was, ‘We didn’t know. Nobody knew what was really going on. Of course, if we had known what was going on, we would have stopped it.’ And a little bit of my brain was thinking, ‘Hmm.’ Because when I was growing up, if my brothers misbehaved the threat was, ‘If you don’t behave yourself, you’ll go to the Christian Brothers!’ [Laughter] You know, that was what people said! That’s what people said in school, that’s what people said at home. You know, it was half a joke and half real.
And all I thought was, ‘Well, you knew something. You obviously didn’t know everything, but you knew something. You knew these weren’t happy places for children to go.’ And yet I also knew that the people who knew this were really good people. They were good people. They were the same people who gave me a very happy childhood. And they were good to their neighbours and they were good to their families and friends.
So the question that you’re left with is: how do these really good people let awful things happen? But that’s not an Irish question, it’s an international question, because we’re all struggling with it all of the time. And I was trying to figure that out a little bit in the book. And to do that I had to read some of the reports, you know, some of the state investigations into what happened in the industrial schools. And you know, the people who had to sit and listen to that testimony for years and hear the truth of what happened and to hear them struggle to come up with answers and what they came up with – which is an imperfect answer, but it explains something and maybe gives us a starting point where we can try to improve from there, you know. Sorry, not very happy, but there you go. [Laughter]. That’s crime fiction for you.
RW: Yes, indeed, yes.
SS: So yeah, I think in the beginning when I was writing this, I wasn’t thinking about America in 1892 – but obviously at some stage you have to. I think for me, because I had started off with that question: what would make someone do this? So I started off in that very interior space. So I started thinking about just women in general and particularly, you know, yeah, women growing up being in that time. And the fact that we had a 32 and 40-year-old single women, had never left the house. And I’m like, that’s a thing to start kind of, to think about, what is it like to be controlled by your father in a particular way? And the constraints kind of around you.
And they were – they were quite a wealthy family, I’ll have you know. They were part – so the Bordens were a part of four major families in the city of Fall River at the time – and the Bordens are, these Bordens I wrote about, were the duds of that family. I only found this out after years and years of doing it, writing the book, and so they were wealthy, they had all this stuff, but there was something not quite right about them.
And so, you know, these are the types of things that you start playing with. Because I think, you know, one of the first things – So one of the things I did to research this novel was I went and stayed at the house where the murders took place – it’s a bed and breakfast [laughter]. And I booked myself into Lizzie’s bedroom! And – you gotta do it once! Or twice. Three times. However many times I did it. And one of the things that, when you talk to the people who kind of do the tours of the house and all that stuff, everyone has a theory. And that’s one of the things that kind of kept drawing me into these cases. There are so many different theories. And actually, even though Benjamin is a fictitious character and stuff, like he is – after a while I realised he was based on one of the theories of the murders, which is they hired someone to come in and kill them.
And so there was part of that. But one of the things people talk about all the time is, this is clearly a sign of abuse in the house, and this is one woman’s way of making that end. I don’t know if that’s what was happening, or anything like that, but to say that this family was dysfunctional is a clear understatement. [Laughter].
Like, some of the things that I kind of uncovered that went around. Like it was just – Andrew was very tight with his money. And again, this is a very controlling man. And so he was very tight with his money. So while there was electricity was on in houses, they still had kerosene lamps. And they would draw the shutters down – and I just kind of kept – and so no one could see in, they couldn’t see out. And it really just started playing on my mind that we are in this very claustrophobic doll house.
And I then started thinking, but you know like, I know what it was like to be a teenager and a young woman and what I would want to do to have my own freedom. And so maybe – well, I wouldn’t kill my parents! [Laughter] But, you know, that idea – maybe I would? Oh no, I wouldn’t. But you know, that kind of, I started thinking about ‘Okay, well I’m going to make Lizzie’ – because when you, I think when you do crime or anything really, especially if it’s unsolved, you have to have your character either to have done it or not and then play with it that way. That’s how I thought anyway.
So I was going to make a – spoiler alert, sorry – I was thinking in the beginning ‘I’m going to make her do it and explain, and then you know, weave in and out of those reasons.’ Yeah, I mean, I could crap on and on and on about the society of the time. But just to also say that Fall River was also a city that was built on cotton and whales – whaling – and so the finances of the time just ebb and flow and ebb and flow.
And when I went there in 2009, I think was the last time I was there, oh no, I went there last year, but – in 2009 when I went there they were having very difficult times. And it just seems like a place where things just never recover. And so one of the things you will be told by the locals is that the town is cursed, because things like this happen all the time. And actually, when I was there that week, they had found just a random dead body in the main street. And so, I think, unlike Dervla, like you had these things – I just went by the sensory kind of things of what was happening in the town and that’s what made this book.
RW: Yes, yes. Can I interrupt before Katherine speaks? But it reminded me of a Katherine Mansfield story, some of you may know, The Daughters of the Late Colonel. Yes – some are nodding – okay, I recommend that if you don’t. It’s two rather infantalised daughters who are middle-aged but still living at home in a very claustrophobic environment with a controlling old father, who then dies, not by their hand, but it’s as if he’s still around controlling them. And finally the sons getting in at the end of the story.
RW: Yes. Katherine’s turn.
KK: So, Melbourne in 1930 was a really interesting place. The population had just hit one million people. Squizzy Taylor had been murdered in 1927 – a gang came down from Sydney and knocked him while he was sick in bed at his mother’s house, which was a classy way to do it. There was a lot of crime going on, particularly crime against women.
There was a murder either side of Molly Dean’s, there were a lot of attacks in that area. A woman ‘drowned’ herself in Albert Park lake in three feet of water about two years later. Her clothes were in a boat on the opposite side of the lake. People heard her scream when she went in. They thought it was a murder, but then they decided it was a suicide, because apparently when you scream – when you jump into cold water, because it’s cold, you scream – you empty your lungs really well so it makes it much easier to drown in a small amount of water. So there was a lot go – Oh, and there was police corruption. Did I mention the police corruption? [Laughter]
There was a lot going on in Melbourne at the time, and for Molly Dean particularly. She was a woman who was from a working class background. Her father had died when she was 10, so money had been a bit tight. They lived in Elwood and she was trying to move from that society into higher society – into that arty scene. And so there was this real cultural divide for her. There’s been suggestions that part of her mother’s attitude was because it was a real ‘What will the neighbours think?’ kind of thing going on with her daughter associating with these artists and musicians and loose people. But again, the mother, you know, if you’re worried about what the neighbours think you don’t tend to drag your daughter into the house by her hair and you don’t tend to write to her boss and accuse him of having a thing for her. So there was a little thing going on there.
But in terms of the Melbourne arts scene, that’s a whole other world as well. The circle that Molly was moving into was the Tonalist circle – the Meldrumites – and Max Meldrum was sort of the art version – the Tony Abbott of his day, really. [Laughter] You mention his name and people are either ‘Love that guy’ or ‘Can’t stand that guy’. And if he had an opinion you kind of had to disagree with it just because he was Max Meldrum, or Tony Abbott depending on which conversation we’re having [laughter].
So that group particularly was even caught in the middle of the art world – you had the sort of street and Heidelberg school back there, you had the real Modernists coming over there and you had these guys that were sort of in the middle, doing their own thing with their floppy hair and sort of slightly artistic ties and living a slightly looser life.
So Molly was spending time over at Collins House, although she was technically still living at her mother’s place. She was a school teacher; she was teaching at an opportunity class which, the way they described it in those days, was for the ‘dull’ children. So, children with learning difficulties. She was a very very good teacher, but she was about to throw it all in to pursue her career as a writer. So, a woman very much ahead of her time. She kind of had this job, which didn’t pay much money, but she really wanted something bigger and better. I think that was something really interesting for me, that a woman in 1930 – a 25 year old woman – was really prepared to put herself out there and just go for it.
And so that was what really intrigued me about that 1930s period: this young woman caught on the edge of her two sort of social groups and caught on the edge of doing what she should do in terms of a career and what she really wanted to do. And ironically on the last night she went to see Pygmalion. I think that really summed up the whole Molly Dean story. But there’s a lot going on in Melbourne in that time, and the police corruption is a story for another day, but there were inquests subsequently.
There’s a lovely story about a police commissioner’s badge turning up during a brothel raid, and of course he lost it the day before. The constables who did the arrest were, you know, two days later they said, ‘Oh, no no no no, the guy we arrested was sort of short and balding’. Whereas of course the police commissioner is tall and has a full head of hair and a beard. So it was, yeah, very interesting times in Melbourne.
RW: Could you remind me of the name of that commissioner? [Laughter] I ask because I got interested in some women artists in the mid-30s and I began to read their background and was of course coming up against this same commissioner and his activities. Could you remember?
KK: Thomas Blamey.
RW: Blamey, yes. A long career and a varied one. Indeed. We won’t go there. We’ll go instead into – ha ha! We’ll go into the modern day for those authors among us who actually have then a modern component, because that would be necessary to look at that as well and not get lost in that swirling history. So, Dervla and Katherine both have modern day or, not quite contemporary but recent history, people looking into the past. Don’t know quite what you’d like to say about them, but can you tell us how you devised those characters?
DM: Yeah, I suppose, when we move forward in the action the story’s really about Cormac Rielly, who’s the guard at the very beginning. And in the 20 years since that prologue Cormac has had a very successful career in Dublin. He’s been running anti-terrorism units out of Dublin Castle. And his partner gets this amazing opportunity back in the west of Ireland, so he moves for her job, but it kind of leaves him having to prove himself all over again.
He’s assigned all these complete no-hoper cold cases that he can’t do anything with. And then he’s asked to look into this case from the past, this original case where he found the children. The reason being that there’s been a recent suicide. Someone has jumped into the Corrib River in the middle of Galway in the middle of the night. And that someone – you find out very quickly at the very beginning, so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler as it’s in chapter one – is Jack, the little boy from the very first scene. So both cases are tied together.
So for me really it was about the back and forth. And I think a little bit – because I described earlier, you know, what had happened in Ireland over that time and the questions it had left me with. So the way I had of exploring that was having a character like Cormac Rielly, you know, who’s a similar age to me, who grew up in the same time in Ireland and was forced to look at these things very closely, has been disillusioned over time.
And, while my historical case is not going back into the 50s, 60s and 70s, the case of the children and the life that they lived in that small village and the degree to which people in that small village knew that things weren’t right and why nothing was done about that. You know, it was sort of about that. So Cormac was a great vehicle for me to kind of ask and answer some of those questions, and also he was fun to write.
KK: I think I came – I had the modern art – she’s an art dealer and her best friend is an art conservator, so they’re working together to look into the history of this painting. And for me that sort of came about because I’d had Molly Dean in my head probably for about 15 or 20 years. I first came across her when I was looking at the artist Colin Colahan and she’s mentioned almost as a footnote to his story. He was her boyfriend at the time – lover, I probably should say – and she gets mentioned: ‘Molly Dean, brutally murdered in 1930, temporarily disrupted his career.’ [Laughter] And so, that was about the extent of her history that could be found.
And so, because I’d sort of been looking at this artist, I then subsequently, many years later, came across a catalogue from an exhibition he’d had in 1930 and he’d painted a portrait of her. So her name was there: ‘Molly Dean’. And when you read reports in the old newspapers her name is spelt with a ‘y’ or with an ‘ie’ and I’d always thought that was particularly sad, that no one even actually knew how she liked to spell her name, and in this catalogue he’d spelt it with a ‘y’. And I thought, ‘Ah, this is the guy who loved her at the time and he knew how to spell her name.’ So that sort of gave me what I wanted. That particular portrait remains lost, so if any of you have seen a really nice portrait by Colin Colahan – young woman, short brown hair – do let me know.
He did paint another painting of her though, which is an absolutely exquisite nude that’s called Sleep and that painting was actually on his easel the night she was murdered. He never quite completely finished it. It’s in a private collection now. So, the lost portrait, the portrait of Molly Dean, which was just a standard head and shoulders probably because that was what he did, that was how I came up with Alex and her conservator friend John. They found this portrait and that was what started them off on the quest to find out more about Molly. And because there’s not much known about her life – she probably published some other stories but under a pen name, so there’s some things out there – but there’s very little known of her life and actually not much known about the police investigation because a lot of the files did go missing. So in having modern day characters looking into it that gave me a little bit more of a chance to explore her life in a way that probably otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
RW: The matching question then for Sarah would be, you know, did you always decide to stay in history or did you ever think of other ways of telling that story?
SS: It may come as no shock to you to learn that I didn’t realise I was writing a historical novel until someone said, ‘It’s set in history.’ I never think about, I don’t know, I never think about it as something that had happened in the past. I think I often think that the past is quite immediate and it’s definitely a way that I think about my own life; it’s always just there.
And so I think I – Well one of the reasons why I did keep it in the past is because I’m not going to solve this crime. It was 125 years ago; no one has solved it. And so I just wanted to play with this family and try and kind of tease out, you know, those types of relationships that they had to just even come to some kind of a feeling more than anything. And so I never thought about bringing it into the future at all. I think also too because I was already playing a lot with what I was doing – I was making up characters, I was, you know, had four narrators, I was really deviating away from a lot of what we know – so I kind of felt like, after a while, it was really just best to say where we were.
But also, not even to go that far, the book only takes place the day of the murders, the day before the murders and then some, a day or two, in the future and that’s kind of it. And so – I keep forgetting to say this. So after Lizzie is accquitted, so her – Her sister Emma, I became quite fascinated with her. We almost don’t know anything about their private lives at all, except for the following details. So Emma was a fierce defender of her sister, and that stems from when they were children. So when their mother, Sarah, was dying when Lizzie was two and Emma was ten, Emma said to her mother, ‘I will look after ‘ – You know, she made this promise that she would look after baby Lizzie no matter what. And I just kind of started thinking about what that might be in a logical way.
And I’m an older sister myself, I would do anything for my brother – almost. And so I just started thinking about these two sisters who were best friends, who were enemies at the same time, who were, you know, just this parasitic kind of relationship. And it kind of goes all the way through until the moment this murder occurs and I started thinking about Emma as – What would you do, if you found out that this sister of yours that you loved and hated may have done this? And so, what would you do?
And so in real life Emma defended her sister. They used some of their inheritance to defend her ha ha ha! Sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, it’s actually awful! But so they hired the best lawyers that they could get – actually one of the lawyers they had was their father’s lawyer. The story gets better and better.
And then when she was acquitted they came home to the family house. They weren’t there for very long. And then they moved into the rich side of town into a mansion and they were there for 13 odd years. And then one day in 1905, Emma just ups and leaves her sister and they never speak to each other again – we don’t know why. I have a theory. [Laughter]. I put it in there! And so there were just, I guess in that respect, going to 1905 for me was my version of going into the future – or well, the present – and because I just, I wanted to end that part of their story.
And the other thing to conclude with that is that even though they speak to each other they died within a week and they’re buried side by side in the family plot in Oak Grove Cemetery. And so I just kind of liked this idea that no matter what they tried – well Emma tried to do anyway – she just could not escape this shadow of her sister. And so I just kind of liked this binding kind of a thing. So yeah, I hope I answered one of your questions.
RW: We were discussing also over dinner, I think each of the authors has a sort of origin story where they had a vision or visitation or something which got to going, so I wonder if they would admit to those?
DM: Well mine is fairly simple really, I suppose. I mean virtually everything in the book took work, you know, it takes time. You have to build it up from nothing and you’re adding layers and layers to make – to give it depth and feeling. But the beginning of the book sort of arrived pretty much fully formed.
I mean, Maude as a character came to my head fully formed; I knew who she was. And the book just started with that simple image of Maude and Jack sitting on the stairs. She’s fifteen, he’s five, they’re holding hands. And I knew they were in this crumbling Georgian hunting lodge. I knew the, you know, the wallpaper was peeling from the walls, there was no electricity, it was getting dark outside. I knew they were afraid. I knew something had reached a crisis point.
And I knew Maude from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet. I knew who she was. I knew how she felt about him: that she’d loved him since the moment he was born, that she’d looked after him almost as a mother and that she was hugely protective of him, but that something had pushed them to the point of no return. And I had no idea what that was and I had to write the book to find out.
But the only part of the book that has survived early drafts is that prologue. Just that little snippet of this story that just arrived almost fully formed. Every other part of it has had to be re-written 500 times. But I’ve tried rewriting that and I have to keep coming back to the beginning. I think the heart of the story is there. I don’t know where it came from, except to say that I’m from a family of seven and there’s a bit of an age gap between me and my two younger sisters. And, you know, the way it was in those days is the older siblings help bring up the smaller siblings, it’s just – you know, I could make a four course Sunday meal for eleven people when I was nine, that’s just the way it works. So I felt very very protectively – as Sarah said about her brother – very protectively of my two younger sisters, almost maternal and very intensely. So I understood how Maude could feel that way about Jack. That’s the only thing I can think of where the source of it was, but the rest just arrived. I wish it would happen again. It hasn’t happened since.
SS: So my – the way that I came to this book was I was writing another book at the time. I was young – twenty-something – and I was trying to write a book about communists. I wanted to write about the Hollywood blacklist and it was going nowhere. I was doing – oh anyway, doesn’t matter. So that was the book I was doing at the time. And it just – it sucked. It was so bad. And I think one of the reasons why it does – or anything that isn’t good writing – is because maybe the writer isn’t very passionate about it or they just can’t connect to it.
So that’s the state I found myself in. I was living in Carlton at the time. And I decided to go down to this amazing bookstore that’s no longer there but it’s called Book Affair. Which was this amazing – yeah, Book Affair! – this amazing second hand bookstore, and I thought, ‘I know there will be something in there that will give me a feeling about communists in the 50s. Yeah, that’s what will happen.’ So I went down in there and I was in there for two hours and there was absolutely nothing, much to my dismay.
And I thought, ‘Well, I may as well buy a book’ and so I went to the true crime section, which I sometimes like to do, and in the corner of this rambling shop there was – I think there was a spine that had come out at me, it was something like Women Who Kill or something and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the book for me.’ And I went to grab it off the shelf and behind it was a pamphlet and it fell down on the ground and I picked it up and it was about the Lizzie Borden case. I had never heard of her before.
There was two things: one, it was all ratty and yellowed and it was $20 and I’m like ‘I’m not spending $20 on this piece of crap’, and then I kind of flicked through and it was – I got to the end – I kind of read about it and I realise now what I read was largely totally made up. Like there was one thing, apparently there was like written in blood on the walls, as all good ransom notes are, is ‘I want’ and then insert amount of money here and all that stuff. Like, that didn’t happen. But you know, and so I got to the end of it and I’m like, ‘That is the most boring thing I have ever read in my life.’ I put it back on the shelf, thought nothing of it, and then I went home to try to go on with my life and still thinking about these damn communists.
I have had very vivid dreams in my life and that night was no different. So I went to bed and I had this dream the Lizzie was sitting at the end of my bed, poking me in the legs, and she said – and it felt like, as if Dervla was sitting right there, that kind of – she said in my dream, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I kind of woke up and went ‘What the fuck was that?’ [Laughter] It was one of the creepiest dreams I’ve ever had in my life and I just thought, ‘I’m ignoring this and I’m gonna go back to sleep.’ And I had that exact same dream for seven nights in a row [gasps]. And I’m not that dumb. I figured something in my subconscious was probably trying to tell me something.
And so on the seventh night of having that dream – like, I just, I’ve had nightmares, this was something completely different to those – I decided to write down my dream and hopefully she would go away. And as soon as I did I just heard this woman’s voice going ‘And then he did this, and then he did this, and then he did this’. It was just this rambling, angry voice and I just tried to keep up with her and that was actually the beginning of a book I didn’t even want to write. I still didn’t want to because, you know, who care’s about white people killing each other? Like, I didn’t [laughter]. Until – until I found that link about families and then removing myself from the crime and the trial because I think I’m interested in families and people. So that’s kind of how it started. Very long story. That’s how it happened.
KK: I think I’ve actually already sort of said some of mine, which was finding Molly as that footnote to the art story many years ago and then seeing her name again in that context of the art catalogue.
But what was particularly interesting about her case was the fact that her family seemed to have quite a degree of suspicion fall on them. Not least because of her mother Ethel Dean – and family friend Adam Graham, I should say. Adam Graham who seemed to have been sleeping with Ethel Dean, even though he was much younger, but who Ethel Dean was trying to push onto Molly at the same time. Molly who hated Adam Graham, although her brother said they got on really well every time he came round for dinner, which seemed to be every single night. Molly who was followed by her mother and Adam Graham quite a lot, almost every time she went out the door. Ethel Dean who, in writing to one of Molly’s friends, told her to ‘Back off and stop leading my daughter astray with these wierdo art types’ actually put a postscript on the letter and said ‘It’s been thirteen days – thirteen years since Molly’s father died, a very happy day indeed.’ [Laughter]. We’re gonna have a family creep off, aren’t we? Yeah. [Laughter].
And then, the man Adam Graham, who was accused of Molly’s murder on the first day of the trial – all charges were dropped and that was the end of the story as far as any investigation in Molly’s murder was concerned. When he was first charged with the crime, he was so casual about it that he was asleep in the cell when bail was posted by a mysterious stranger, so they had to wake him up to turn him loose. It was, yeah. There was just a lot going on that the more you read about it the more intriguing it became. And the fact that once Adam Graham was, well not even acquitted, but once he was let off, there was no further investigation and that was it for Molly Dean’s life. So yeah.
RW: Thank you, Dervla. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Katherine!
KYD: That was Dervla McTiernan, Sarah Schmidt and Katherine Kovacic discussing their debut novels for Sisters in Crime. You can find their novels, The Ruin, See What I Have Done and The Portrait of Molly Dean respectively, at all good bookstores. And you can find us at killyourdarlings.com.au. Thanks to Sisters in Crime for their fantastic event. I’m Meaghan Dew and you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. See you next time!