A June of Ordinary Murders is the debut Victorian Era historical mystery by Conor Brady about a Dublin detective who begins piecing together a connection from string of suspicious deaths (available April 21, 2015).
In the 1880s the Dublin Metropolitan Police classified crime in two distinct categories. Political crimes were classed as “special,” whereas theft, robbery and even murder, no matter how terrible, were known as “ordinary.”
Dublin, June 1887: The city swelters in a long summer heat wave, the criminal underworld simmers, and with it, the threat of nationalist violence is growing. Meanwhile, the Castle administration hopes the celebration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee will pass peacefully. Then, the mutilated bodies of a man and a child are discovered in Phoenix Park and Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow steps up to investigate. Cynical and tired, Swallow is a man living on past successes in need of a win. With the Land War at its height, the priority is to contain special crime, and these murders appear to be ordinary—and thus of lesser priority. But when the evidence suggests high-level involvement, and the body count increases, Swallow must navigate the treacherous waters of foolish superiors, political directives, and frayed tempers to solve the case, find the true murderer, and deliver justice.
Friday June 17th, 1887
The place where the bodies of the adult and the child were found was cool and shadowed before the sun burned off the morning mist.
It was on wooded ground that sloped down towards the river with a view across the city towards the mountains. Swallow knew it well. When the muttering constable with sleep in his eyes and clutching the crime report dragged himself up to the detective office from the Lower Yard of Dublin Castle, he could see it in his mind’s eye.
This was where the boundary wall of the Phoenix Park met the granite pillars of the Chapelizod Gate, and where beech and pine trees formed a small, dense copse close by.
At this point, the trees are trained by the wind that funnels along the valley of the River Liffey towards Dublin Bay, inclining them eastward as if permanently pointing the way to the city. Outside the wall the ground falls away towards the river with the open fields and the village of Chapelizod beyond.
It was here, just inside the boundary wall of the park, that a keeper found the two bodies on the third morning of the extraordinary heatwave that settled on the island of Ireland in the third week of June, 1887.
In a few days’ time the country, along with Great Britain’s other territories and possessions across the globe, would mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne. It was as if the blue skies and sunlit days had been specially arranged to honour the Queen and Empress of half a century.
Though it was scarcely 7 o’clock, Swallow could feel the warmth of the coming day on the nape of his neck as the police side-car bucked and swayed along Chesterfield Avenue across the park to where the bodies had been found. The city temperature had touched 86 degrees yesterday. Now the strengthening morning sun presaged more of the same.
Dublin always took a more leisurely start to its morning, later than other cities in the industrious reign of Queen Victoria. At this early hour, the police vehicle was the only traffic on the broad, two-mile carriageway that bisects the Phoenix Park.
Swallow had put in a fetid night as duty sergeant at the G-Division detective office at Exchange Court. There were few places more cheerless in which to spend any night. Huddled in against the northern flank of Dublin Castle, chilled in winter and airless in summer, Exchange Court had the reputation of being the unhealthiest building in the maze of blocks and alleyways that had spread out around King John’s original castle to house the administration of Ireland.
Dublin’s police districts were denominated alphabetically. They went from the A, covering the crowded Liberties with its hungry alleys and courts and its primitive sanitation, to the F, serving the genteel coast from Blackrock to Dalkey with its spacious villas and elegant terraces.
The plain-clothes G Division based at Exchange Court was supposedly the elite of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Its members often grumbled over the paradox of its having probably the least salubrious accommodation of all the force.
The report of the discovery of the bodies – a man and a boy, it was said – had come in a few minutes before Swallow was due to finish his shift at 6 a.m. Now the sun’s faint warmth hinted of the denied pleasure of sleep. Behind the police vehicle, the day was forming over Dublin.
Here the city seemed far behind. The spreading acres of the great municipal park – the largest in the Empire, it was said – were a pattern of greens. Beech, oak, chestnut and maple rose over a mantle of meadow-grass.
At the base of the soaring Wellington Monument, erected through public subscription to commemorate the Dublin-born victor of Waterloo, a herd of the park deer grazed the soft morning grass. Picking up the sound of the police carriage, the timid animals started to move away from the open space to the cover of the nearby trees.
Swallow turned to gaze back across the park towards the bay and the mountains. Harriet would be going to her examination desk at the teacher training college soon. The first of her summer tests would start at 9 o’clock. It would be a trying day for his young sister, cooped up in a stuffy hall with the sun beating down outside. He smiled inwardly imagining her impatience as she would fill foolscap pages through the morning with commentaries on Shakespeare and the English Romantic Poets.
As they came abreast of the Viceregal Lodge, the residence of the Queen’s deputy in Ireland, the police driver hauled the car sharply to the left, veering away from the avenue onto a narrow lane known as Acres Road. The centrifugal force of the turn obliged Swallow to clutch the brass centre-rail of the vehicle, just above the embossed harp-and-crown emblem of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.
The two Bridewell constables he had collected from their beats planted booted feet against the car’s duckboard to hold their balance. The younger nudged his companion and grinned.
‘Jesus, it’s as well we didn’t get any breakfast, what?’
By rights, Swallow reckoned, he should be at Maria Walsh’s going through a plate of something substantial himself by now, and maybe addressing himself to a pint of Guinness’s porter or a mellow Tullamore whiskey. For a moment he visualised himself in her parlour above the public house on Thomas Street, his current ‘domicile’, as police terminology referred to such arrangements.
Now the side-car was on a narrow, grassy track, leading across the open parkland.
There was a cluster of uniforms by the copse within sight of the Chapelizod Gate. A full-bearded sergeant and two constables from the A-Division station at Kilmainham stood beside a white-haired friar. In spite of the sunshine and the incipient heat of the morning, the priest looked pale and cold.
A few yards away, a park-keeper with a shotgun broken open across his arm was in conversation with some civilians. His gun dog sat obediently on the grass beside him, its nose twitching at the interesting scents of the morning air. From somewhere beyond the boundary wall, Swallow heard the morning squawks and clucks of barnyard fowl.
He had been to this place before. Five years earlier the copse was one of dozens of locations in the park he had searched with colleagues investigating the murders of Ireland’s two most senior government officials, Chief Secretary Lord Cavendish and Under-Secretary Burke, by members of the extremist group, the ‘Invincibles.’
The driver dragged on the reins and slowed the vehicle to a halt 20 yards from the group. Swallow and the two constables dismounted and strode across the grass. He recognised the bearded sergeant as Stephen Doolan, with whom he had worked before. He introduced himself for the benefit of the others.
‘Detective Sergeant Swallow, G Division. Where are they?’
‘In the trees,’ Doolan nodded towards the copse. ‘The park-keeper found them around an hour and a half ago, a man and a child – a boy.’
The copse had been planted a century previously by the park architects so that it formed a bower or primitive pergola. From where he stood, Swallow could see a contoured shape under a grey blanket between the trunks of two giant beeches.
‘I’ve kept everyone a way back from the scene since we got here, including the priest,’ Doolan said, gesturing towards the civilians. ‘What might have happened before that, I don’t know.’
Swallow grunted in approval. Not every uniformed DMP sergeant knew or cared enough about crime investigation to preserve a scene properly, but the veteran Doolan knew his business. Swallow and he went back a long way.
They walked the few yards to the copse. The sun had started to filter through the branches of the high beech, dappling the ground underfoot. Swallow saw that there was not just one, but two blankets.
He dropped to his haunches by the trunk of one of the trees. Doolan brought his bulk down on one knee and grasped the nearer blanket.
‘D’you want to see the man or the child first?’
‘Let’s see the man.’
Swallow was unsure why he felt it might be easier that way. Perhaps he wanted to put off what he knew would be the more unpalatable sight. He indicated the covered shape on the ground, and Doolan lifted the grey blanket.
The body appeared to be that of a slightly built man, clothed in a dark jacket and trousers with an off-white shirt. It lay on its back, what remained of the face turned to the morning sky.
Swallow instinctively removed his hat as a gesture of respect.
The features had been terribly mutilated. The eyes were sockets of red turning to black. The skin, from the jawline to the forehead and from one ear to the other, was marked with a series of gashes. Only bloodied gristle remained of the nose. There was a full head of dark brown hair, cut short. Swallow reckoned him to be young, maybe in his twenties.
Doolan folded the blanket and dropped to one knee. ‘You wouldn’t see many as bad as that,’ he said softly.
Swallow concurred silently. More than 20 years as a city policeman had inured him to sights of death and injury. Momentarily, he was reminded of a scene from his days in uniform where a young inmate had put her face in a mincing machine at the kitchens of the Richmond Asylum.
He had taught himself to isolate his emotions at times like this. His technique involved not thinking of what lay before him as an individual human being who had been breathing, eating, drinking or perhaps making love just a few hours previously. That would come later when they would have a name and an identity, humanising this broken thing on the ground.
What was important for now was detail. He drew out his notebook and pencil and started to record what he saw.
The left arm was flung out to the side at an angle of 45 degrees, the right arm folded across the chest.
The clothing was not noticeably disturbed. The jacket and trousers were clean and seemed in good repair. An off-white cotton shirt, buttoned to the neck but collarless, was spattered with blood. Seven or eight feet from the head a black, soft-brimmed hat lay upturned on the ground.
On the left side of the forehead, just below the hairline, there was a clear, circular hole, the size of a small coin. It formed the apex of an acute triangle with its base at the two craters where the eyes had once been. Swallow drew an oval to represent the face on the open page of the notebook and marked the location of the wound in relation to the eye cavities.
He moved close to the corpse and squatted so that he could examine the clothing by touch. He felt the fabric of the jacket between his thumb and forefinger. It was relatively new, but of indifferent quality.
When he touched his fingers against the corpse’s right hand it was cold and solid.
He moved to the feet of the corpse and squatted again. The boots showed wear, but they had been neatly patched in two places on the uppers. He drew two outlines in the notebook and marked the location of the patches on each one.
Doolan rose to his full height and moved to where the other blanket was draped across a smaller form a couple of feet away.
‘This won’t be easy either,’ Doolan said. He lifted the second blanket to reveal a small, huddled form, lying in the foetal position on its right side with bare legs drawn up towards the stomach. The boy was perhaps 8 or 9 years old. His hands were clasped together in front of him with the fingers interlocked. The head was turned upward across the left shoulder, so Swallow could see the same destruction of the face, just as with the adult lying nearby.
The eyes were all but gone under the open lids. In their place were two small caverns of bloodied space. On the pale forehead, above where the left eye should have been, the same circular wound penetrated through flesh and bone to reveal brain matter within the skull. The dark hair, cut short, looked healthy and glossy. The child’s mouth was open with the gums visible as if he were still screaming in the shock tremor that marked the end of his life.
A scene from his childhood years in the County Kildare countryside swam into his mind.
A man ploughing the land near Swallow’s home at Newcroft had uncovered what appeared to be human bones. At first, he thought they were the remains of famine victims, perhaps a family that had starved or died of exposure or disease. When the priest was called he told the farmer that he had stumbled on a prehistoric burial chamber. People travelled long distances to see it as the news spread.
Swallow’s father had taken him by the hand across the fields to gaze down at the yellow-grey bones in the pit. One of the smaller skeletons was crouched in the same foetal position as the dead child he was now looking at.
A few days later, men came from the new museum in Dublin and took the bones away in a wooden box. They stopped at the Swallow family pub, Newcroft House, before taking the open car that brought them to the train at the town of Kildare. While they were drinking, one of the men from the museum told his father that the skeletons were 4,000 years old.
He got to his feet. ‘Have we any identification at all, Stephen?’
‘Nothing. I went through the pockets. There’s no wallet, no watch, no rings on any of the fingers, no letters. Not even a tram ticket. Nothing in the lad’s pockets either.’
Swallow pointed to the circular wound on the forehead. ‘What do you make of that? And the same mark on the child?’
Doolan scratched his chin through his dark beard as if seeking inspiration. ‘They’re surely bullet wounds. But there should be exit wounds too. And I can’t see any.’
Swallow moved back to squat beside the body again. He went through the pockets of the trousers and jacket. Doolan was right. There was nothing.
‘Do you think the park-keeper might have lifted a wallet or a watch? Or anyone else?’
Doolan shook his head. ‘I can’t say it didn’t happen. The park-keeper’s fairly shaken himself, though. He lives down in the village in Chapelizod. He says it was the dog that brought him over here, barking and yelping.’
Swallow reached to the adult corpse’s left arm from where it lay across the grass. The hand was surprisingly small. There were no signs of physical labour.
Swallow concentrated on the two bodies, trying to study the features. Father and son, perhaps? The destruction of the faces made it difficult to measure likeness.
‘What time were they found?’
‘The park-keeper turned up at the police station in Chapelizod about 5.30 or so. They sent for the priest and they telegraphed to the Commissioner’s office at Dublin Castle. The message was relayed on to me at Kilmainham. I sent one of my lads to notify the G Division.’
The police chain of communication was slow and cumbersome. The Dublin Metropolitan Police area stretched well beyond the city proper, encompassing the great space of the Phoenix Park and many of the villages and hamlets on its periphery. Nearly all of the big DMP stations were linked by a communications system known as the ABC Telegraph. Only a few of the larger stations were connected to the new telephone system that was in the early stages of installation across the city.
Outside of the Metropolitan District, policing was the responsibility of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Arguably the most effective communications link between the two forces was the fact that their respective headquarters’ offices were located in proximity to each other in the Lower Yard at Dublin Castle.
‘Do we know any reason why the park-keeper was out so early?’
Doolan shrugged. ‘He says he was watching for a couple of stray dogs that’ve been giving trouble. We haven’t any report of that but we can check it. He might have been planning on bringing home a few rabbits or even a deer. He wouldn’t usually start work until 8 o’clock.’
Swallow cursed silently. Close on two hours had been lost, part of which he had spent in the detective office at Exchange Court, shuffling useless paperwork to bring him to the end of his night shift. It was time that might have seen the disappearance of valuable clues, or enabled a perpetrator to get far away from the scene of the crime.
With more than 20 years in plain clothes, Swallow was one of the G Division’s most experienced serious crime investigators. There had scarcely been a murder or suspicious death in the city during the past decade to which he had not been assigned. That the Dublin Metropolitan Police had been able to claim the highest rate of crime detection of any urban area in Britain and Ireland was in some considerable part attributable to the skills of Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow.
When three of the ‘Invincibles’ went to the gallows for the murders of Lord Cavendish and Mr Burke, Swallow got a commendation. His boss, the legendary Detective Superintendent John Mallon, had been promoted. Some of Swallow’s colleagues told him that he should have done better out of the case himself, maybe with promotion to inspector. Swallow thought so too. In fact he was bloody sure of it. He had seen others promoted having achieved much less. It was not easy to avoid feeling bitter.
And he could have done without this situation, he told himself. He had got through his week of night duty without a major crime being reported. A couple of years ago that would have been a disappointment. He would have relished the thrill of a new case, the challenge of the unknown, the satisfaction of putting the pieces of a puzzle together to see it emerge finally as a coherent picture.
This time he had been looking forward to his two leave-days. He would have slept late in the mornings and then maybe spent the warm June afternoons with his board and colours, painting at Sandycove Harbour or by the rocks at Scotsman’s Bay, behind Kingstown. He liked seascapes for the way they constantly changed, even as he worked. It meant that nobody could say he had got the wrong colour in the sky or that he had exaggerated the height of the waves.
For as long as he could remember he had been a sketcher, scratching away with a pencil stump as a boy, drawing dogs or birds or the outline of a hill or the detail of a building. In the budding stages of his romantic involvement with Maria Walsh, she had introduced him to her younger sister, Lily Grant, who was a teacher of art at Alexandra College. She encouraged him to experiment with watercolours and offered to guide him in his early efforts. He still liked to sketch, but there was something especially pleasurable in working the colour washes in and around the pencil outlines.
Even his immediate plan for the day was forfeit now. He had arranged to collect his sister at the college in Blackrock in the afternoon, when her examination would be finished. They would walk the length of the sea road to Kingstown and she would tell him about the examination paper in the morning and how she had got on.
Then he would take her to afternoon tea at Mr Gresham’s Marine Hotel, looking down over the harbour, busy with yachts and ships and with passengers getting on and off the mail packets.
Swallow took his role as an older brother seriously. Harriet had hardly known her father. After he died, her brother had filled much of the void in her childhood world. He was her security, her counsellor and her confidant.
When she had been offered a place at teacher training college a year ago it had signalled a problem. It meant she would leave her mother to operate the public house and grocery store at Newcroft. Running the business was a hard task for a widow, dependent on hired help.
An obvious solution might be for Swallow to go home to run the place. After more than 20 years’ service with the police he was eligible for a decent pension. A detective sergeant’s pay was more than adequate for a single man. He had made some modest investments and savings too: a few shares in the tram companies and the new Dublin gas company, and a small accumulation of cash in a savings account in a Dame Street bank.
There was the complication of his relationship with Maria Walsh. He was a single man. She was an attractive widow with her well-established public house that she had inherited from her family in Thomas Street, just 15 minutes’ walk from the Castle. There was the age gap between them. He was fit and strong for his 42 years. She was looking at 30. Without planning it, their lives had become enmeshed.
But Swallow was not of a mind to abandon the life to which he had become accustomed in order to return to rural Kildare or even to become Maria Walsh’s partner in running her business. At least it was not what he wanted to do just yet.
It was important to be in Dublin while Harriet was in training college. She needed his guidance as she came to know the world. Increasingly, he worried about what was in her head concerning politics. She had begun to mention too often, he thought, what she referred to as ‘Ireland’s distress.’
When he encountered his sister recently in a café in Westmoreland Street with a young man, Harriet introduced her brother using an Irish language form of his name – Seosamh.
Swallow did not conceal his irritation. ‘You’re going to confuse people,’ he told her sharply. ‘If I change the name I was given at birth I’ll let you know.’
Harriet introduced the young man as Mr O’Donnell. He was ‘Seamus’ but if Swallow preferred he could call him ‘James,’ she added.
Within a few minutes of opening the conversation, O’Donnell had used the same phrase that she had used about Ireland’s distress, but it was with an undertone of aggression that rang a warning bell in Swallow’s policeman’s head. When they parted, he scribbled the name ‘James O’Donnell’ in his notebook.
In Swallow’s experience, Ireland’s distress was too often invoked as a cover for what was simply crime. Violence, misappropriation of funds, even murder could be presented under the guise of patriotism. It was not that he doubted the sincerity of some of the politicals, as they were referred to in police parlance. Many of them were honourable people, he acknowledged. But good causes could also be exploited.
His boss, John Mallon, had a saying: ‘you can buy a lot of patriotism in Dublin for a fiver.’ The veteran detective had made quite a few such purchases in building up his intelligence network over the years.
Lately, Swallow noticed, Harriet had begun to disparage the various celebrations that were being planned to take place around the city to mark the Golden Jubilee of Victoria’s ascent to the throne.
1887 was to be a year of self-congratulation for the Empire upon which it was proclaimed the sun would never set. But conditions in Ireland were not conducive to celebration.
The ‘land war’ continued to rage across the country as smallholders fought to free themselves from crippling rents. The Dublin Castle authorities, under the direction of a new and tough Chief Secretary, Arthur Balfour, responded with draconian crime legislation, additional powers for the police and additional prison spaces for those who demanded reform. Irish nationalists argued that there was nothing for their country to celebrate. There were urgings to boycott or disrupt public events.
But there would be no visit to Kingstown and no afternoon tea with his sister at Mr Gresham’s Marine Hotel today. The bodies of the man and child on the ground between the beech trees had put paid to that.
Doolan removed his helmet and wiped his forehead with his uniform sleeve.
‘How long do you think they’re dead?’
‘Just a few hours, I’d say. The man’s still in rigor mortis. That usually begins after about three hours. He died sometime last night, maybe in the early hours of this morning.’
‘Christ, I’ve seen a lot over the years – as you have. But a father and child butchered like that…’ Doolan said.
‘You’d say they’re father and son?’ Swallow asked.
‘Well, it’s a guess. But they could be. I don’t see anything indicating a struggle,’ Doolan said hurriedly, moving from speculation to more certain ground. ‘But nobody here would have seen anything in the night or even heard shots. The lodge at the gate isn’t occupied any longer. Maybe they were killed somewhere else?’
Swallow shook his head.
‘I think they died here. You can see the lividity there in the hands and the arms where the blood gathers. The bodies weren’t moved after death.’
He pointed to the ground. ‘If you look on the moss and grass around the two of them there, you’ll see that there are small bloodstains. They’re in a pattern around the head and shoulders on the ground as well as on his clothes. They bled here. They died here.’
Doolan shrugged. ‘I suppose you’re paid more than I am to know about these things. What do you want done now?’
‘We need to get a message down to Doctor Lafeyre at Harcourt Street. Tell him he’s needed up here. We need to get the photographic technician too. You’ll have to clear that with the Commissioner’s office. I want photographs here before the bodies are moved.’
Swallow stepped back from the bodies to the edge of the copse. It was still cool and dark in the trees, and he winced slightly as the strengthening morning sun hit his eyes.
Everything he had seen so far boded badly.
This was not going to be a routine inquiry. It was not the result of a drunken brawl or a random criminal encounter. The remote location meant it was unlikely there were any witnesses. The extent of the damage inflicted on the corpses confirmed the application of singular brutality in the execution of the crime. The absence of any identifying clues especially worried him. Not knowing the identity of a crime victim multiplied the police task of investigation many times over.
The only positive he could see was that there was nothing to suggest any political dimension to this case.
G Division divided all crime into two categories: ‘special’ or ‘ordinary.’ The absolute priority was ‘special crime’ – anything with an element of politics or subversion. ‘Ordinary crime’ might be serious, but it took second place to security or politically related issues. Swallow’s instinct told him that these were ‘ordinary murders.’
He stepped back out of the copse and into the full light, allowing his gaze to travel across the scene through a full 360 degrees.
He tried to imagine the final moments of what had been acted out here. Was the boy shot first? Did the man witness the terrible sight of his young son – assuming that they were parent and child – being killed before his eyes? Or was the parent shot first? Did he see the child’s terror in the last fraction of time that he was given, knowing too with certainty that the boy would follow into the darkness?
It was incongruous, he thought, that such brutalities were often uncovered in beautiful places.
So it was here. The green park rippled away towards the city, punctuated with breaks of trees. Although he could not see the river from where he stood, a faint morning mist rising from beyond the Chapelizod Gate marked its route down the valley to the city and the bay. In the distance, over the city, he could see the rising plume of steam from Guinness’s brewery at St James’s Gate. He got the faint, sweet aroma of roasting barley and hops on the air.
There was no way of knowing how the man and the boy had come to this place. Had they walked or ridden? Had they been driven? Had they come from the city during the night, along the wide expanse of Chesterfield Avenue, or had they entered the park through the gate nearby? If they had come through the village of Chapelizod there was a better probability of witnesses. Perhaps even of identification.
Swallow glumly told himself the chances were slim. The dead man and child were no villagers. The light clothing and the soft hands suggested a city type. Other questions followed. What time had they come? Were they alone? Why had they come to this remote, out-of-the-way corner of the great park? And what motive could there be for such brutal killings? Robbery might be a possibility, given the absence of any money, a watch or a wallet. Could there be some motive of revenge? Or some set of relationships gone violently wrong? Until he had identification the lives of the man and boy would be unknowable.
He gave instructions to Doolan.
‘Get every man you can collect, Stephen. Have them search the ground thoroughly from here to the road beyond. Collect anything they find, buttons, coins, clay pipes, cigarette ends. I want anything that looks like a good footprint or a wheel-track to be marked out for plaster-casting. How many men can you raise?’
‘We’ll pull them off the regular beats on the A Division. I can get a dozen.’
Swallow nodded. ‘You’ll need more. You’ll have to preserve the scene until Dr Lafeyre is done and the photographer too. Contact D Division too. Get them to send everyone they have as well.’
He pointed towards the end of the track where it exited the park at the Chapelizod Gate.
‘Get a party to follow the road right down to the gate. You’ll need a line of men across the grass, three feet apart, six men each side. Then go the other direction and follow the road up to Chesterfield Avenue. If there’s a gun or cartridges or anything discarded they’ll probably be somewhere along the track.’
Doolan hurriedly noted the instructions in his pocketbook.
‘That’s all understood. I’ll send down to the city for more men, but it’ll take a while to cover all the ground. I’ll have both ends of the road closed and we’ll the seal off the extended scene.’
He gestured to where the white-haired friar was standing patiently beside the road, clutching his box of holy oils.
‘We asked Father Laurence from the Merchants’ Quay friary to come out with us earlier. God bless him, he’s been standing there for more than an hour. Are you happy to let him up there to give them their last rites?’
Swallow glanced over at the priest in his brown habit. He had forgotten about him and felt momentarily guilty. ‘That’s fine as long as he doesn’t interfere with anything. Send a constable up with him to make sure.’
Doolan went to deploy his men and Swallow walked over to where the park-keeper stood with his gun and dog.
The man was perhaps 40 years of age, thin and wiry. He was agitated, his eyes darting around as if expecting some new catastrophe to descend, but he offered a consistent account of what he had seen and found.
Swallow thought he might have been mildly hysterical. That would not rule him out as a suspect. He had experienced cases of violence where the criminal, confronted with a full realisation of what he had done, had gone into shock.
‘I want to see your hands and to examine your clothes,’ Swallow told him. ‘Have you any objection?’
The man seemed startled. He shrugged and stammered, ‘No … no.’
‘Take off your jacket,’ Swallow commanded, ‘and put your hands out in front of you with the palms up.’
He gave Swallow the blue official jacket. It was worn and it smelled of woodsmoke and sweat. Inside, the lining was holed and torn. But there were no stains or damp spots that might indicate hurried washing. The pockets contained a few pennies, a pipe and a tobacco pouch, a dirty handkerchief and rosary beads.
He scrutinised the man’s extended hands and turned them over. They were calloused and ingrained. Rims of black dirt lay under the fingernails, but there was no blood. These were not the hands or the clothing of a man who had committed the butchery in the copse of pine and beech.
‘All right,’ Swallow conceded. ‘Go along with the constables. Make your statement and then go home. You’ve had a bad morning.’
Swallow estimated that even if the man was a poacher on the side, he was in this instance at least an honest witness.
Doolan came across the grass, having briefed his men. He drew his half-hunter watch from his pocket and read the hour. It was coming up to 9 o’clock.
‘Do you want some breakfast? They’ll still be serving in the canteen at Kilmainham. You’ll want to make a report to the Castle – to get some of your own fellows up here from Exchange Court.’
Swallow had eaten nothing since midnight in Exchange Court when he had taken his sandwiches, prepared for him earlier by Maria’s housekeeper. He was thirsty too. In earlier years, he might have finished his night-duty tour with a couple of pints of stout and perhaps a Tullamore or two in one of the early-morning houses licensed to serve drink to drovers, dealers and others whose livelihood would have them on the streets before the city was properly awake.
The normal arrangements for refreshment and sustenance would not apply for the foreseeable future. He had a full agenda. He had to advise his superiors at Exchange Court of the details of the crime. He needed experienced detectives on the ground.
Standard procedure would oblige him to open a ‘murder book.’ An investigation into a crime like this could take weeks or months. Police practice required that every jot of information, every witness interviewed and every statement taken be meticulously recorded in the murder book, checked and then cross-checked.
Swallow reckoned that he had an hour before Dr Harry Lafeyre, the city medical examiner, would get to the scene along with the police photographic technician.
He would have to eat at some point, and it was going to be a long day ahead. He knew too that at this stage of his investigation even the sight of mutilated bodies would not interfere with his appetite. That would come later, perhaps, when names had been put on them, when the lifeless corpses were no longer just nameless flesh and bone.
He climbed aboard the Kilmainham side-car. ‘Breakfast it will be then, Stephen,’ he answered Doolan. ‘They say an army marches on its stomach, but I can tell you that in my experience so does a murder investigation.’
The driver snapped the reins, drawing the horse from its feast of meadow-grass, and turned the car back towards the city.
‘Pisspot’ Ces Downes died in the front bedroom of her house over-looking Francis Street, in Dublin’s Liberties, four days before the Queen’s Jubilee, on the third day of the heatwave. She breathed her last just after 8 o’clock in the evening, about the same time that Joe Swallow completed his initial report on the Chapelizod Gate murders and signed himself out of the detective office at Exchange Court.
The news had spread during the week that the woman with a killer’s reputation who had spun a spider’s web of crime across the city for more than 20 years was on her deathbed. As quickly as the news percolated through the streets and the public houses and even the police stations, the question was being asked: What would happen when she was gone?
There were differing versions of how ‘Pisspot’ Ces – Cecilia Downes – had got her nickname. One was that she kept a porcelain pot brimming with sovereigns hidden in a secret room at the top of the three-storey house in Francis Street. Another was that when she drank porter she did so from a circular, two-handled vessel that looked as if it had been designed for sanitary purposes.
Many years before, Joe Swallow had heard what he believed to be the more accurate account of it. His source was Stephen Doolan who was then working in plain clothes from the DMP station at College Street.
Swallow and Doolan had spent a fruitless week trying to recover a haul of silver plate taken in broad daylight from a judge’s house on St Stephen’s Green. The word around the city was that ‘Pisspot’ Ces had already found a buyer for it in Manchester. Now they had taken two high stools in front of a pair of pints in Mulligan’s public house, behind the DMP station.
The two policemen were in gloomy mood, anticipating the censure that would descend upon them from on high for their failure to restore His Lordship’s plate.
‘She’s as hardened and vicious a criminal as you’ll meet, that one,’ Doolan said, as he squared up to his pint of Guinness’s porter. ‘And she has an eye for good silver.’
He raised the tumbler to his lips and downed a third of his pint.
‘That’s what she started with – silver. Did you know that?’
He ran the back of his hand across his mouth, drawing the frothy trace of the porter off the bristles of his moustache. ‘As I heard it from one of the old-timers in College Street, she was only a young one at the time. She went to service in a big house in Merrion Square, I think it was. The housekeeper found a clutch of silver spoons hidden away under a petticoat. When she saw the set of spoons neatly wrapped away she told her she was calling the police.’
He shook his head gravely.
‘That was where she made the mistake – the housekeeper, that is. Ces Downes drew up a cast-iron chamber-pot from under the bed and battered her with it across the skull a dozen times. That woman never walked or talked properly afterwards.’
Doolan raised his glass again.
‘I heard that from one of the men that took Ces Downes to the Bridwell, still shouting that if she had a chance, she’d finish the ould bitch off. But you know, the extraordinary thing is that she was never charged for it. She could have been done at the very least for assault and battery, maybe even attempted murder. You won’t find any of it in the records at the Dublin Criminal Registry.’
Whether the tale was true or not, it had gained acceptance in the world of Dublin crime. It became another thread in the mystery that was ‘Pisspot’ Ces Downes.
Even in the closing days of her life, nobody in authority could have put their hands on any documentation to confirm where Ces was born or what her name had been before she married her late husband, Tommy ‘The Cutter’ Byrne.
Searches by successive investigators over the years in the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages had yielded nothing. Trawls through the post office and the savings banks, facilitated by co-operative officials, found no trace of her supposed crime-funded fortune. There was nothing of use in her file in the Dublin Criminal Registry, the DMP’s vast repository of information held at Dublin Castle on those who came to their notice during the investigation of crime.
A decade previously, after her husband had died of consumption, she paid cash down for what had once been the home of a prosperous wool-merchant on Francis Street.
The once-elegant town house was within the hearing of the bells of the city’s two cathedrals: Christ Church and St Patrick’s. It became the headquarters of Ces Downes’s criminal operations. The fine reception rooms became dormitories for travelling criminals. The spacious kitchens and pantries became storehouses for junk and stolen property. The Italianate plasterwork on the ceilings crumbled. What had once been a showpiece of Georgian architecture and workmanship degenerated into a squalid doss-house.
A wisecracking G-man remarked perceptively that Pisspot Ces and her house on Francis Street deteriorated together. Never abstemious, she drank heavily and steadily after Tommy’s death. The sharp, strong features turned to sagging flesh. The once-glossy hair that she wore curling to her shoulders gradually turned from black to a yellow-grey.
Ces Downes kept the top floor of the mansion as her citadel, sharing it with two Staffordshire fighting dogs that reputedly slept one at each side of her bed at night. Few of her criminal foot-soldiers had access to the top floor. Only her most trusted lieutenants ever got beyond the landing. When she saw visitors on business it was in a dilapidated, dirty room at street level that had once been the wool-merchant’s counting office.
As Ces Downes’s criminal enterprises consolidated, upwards of half a dozen young men – her ‘lads,’ as she referred to them – operated as her muscle.
Two of them in particular, Vinny Cussen and Charlie Vanucchi, were toughened criminals. Cussen was squat and red-haired with a physique like a small horse. Vanucchi’s tall frame and sallow, dark looks betokened his Neapolitan forebears, who had come to Dublin as street pedlars three generations previously.
There were rumours that Ces had children. Some of the G-Division detectives had picked up a whisper that she had a son who was one of the top criminals in Liverpool. A young woman who came to visit her once at Francis Street was spoken of as being her daughter. Somebody else said she was Ces’s fence – a receiver of stolen goods – in London. But she would neither deny nor confirm any of it on the many occasions when she was interviewed in connection with one crime or another.
Nor was it easy to say how or why Pisspot Ces Downes had emerged as one of the acknowledged principals of Dublin’s criminal underworld during the 1870s and 1880s. Some policemen believed there was a clue in the bail records of the Dublin Magistrates Courts. While it was impossible to find any trace of her in any other official register, the books there showed that she had begun to offer herself as a bail-bondsman at some time at the beginning of that period.
Bail was difficult in the Dublin courts for a suspected criminal accused of housebreaking or robbery or picking pockets. Victorian Dublin, in common with every other major city of the United Kingdom, placed a premium on the protection of property. The city’s policing and courts system reflected that. But bail in some circumstances might be a possibility if someone was willing to put up a heavy bond. Ces Downes seemed to have the funds to do so.
She had no convictions for violence, but it was generally believed that a Belfast criminal who was found with his throat cut on Usher’s Island had died at Ces Downes’s own hand. His error, it seems, was thinking that he could undercut Downes and supply cheap, bootleg whiskey to certain public houses on the Dublin quays.
And it was known that when a small-time fence across the river in Mary Street refused to pay Vinny Cussen the agreed value of a collection of stolen watches, Ces Downes ordered that he be brought over to Francis Street for some persuasion. He was never seen alive again. Tentative identification of a battered corpse taken from the river at Islandbridge a month later indicated his likely violent end.
She seemed to have influence in unlikely places. It was known that when a drunken doctor had refused treatment to a sick woman at the Long Lane Dispensary, Ces Downes somehow arranged it so that she was admitted as a patient at Dr Steevens’ Hospital. The woman even got a sulky apology from the dispensary.
She had the reputation of being able to persuade certain landlords to hold off from raising rents or evicting certain tenants who were in her favour and who were having difficulty meeting their bills. It was said, although never proven, that she had influence with lawyers and even with some judges.
Over the years she built a network of operators from the poverty-stricken classes that inhabited the courts and alleyways and tenements of Dublin city. Ces Downes was a protector, a fixer, a money lender and a counsellor as well as being a woman who was personally capable of extreme violence.
G Division knew that her criminal interests ran virtually the entire gamut of the underside of Dublin life. She received stolen property. She operated rings of ‘dippers’ – young girls who picked pockets in the streets or at race meetings. She funded pitch and toss schools. She staked cash for the illicit distilling of alcohol. Although it could never be established that she was directly involved in prostitution, she readily went bail for girls from the red-light districts around Montgomery Street or in the courts and alleys off Grafton Street whenever the DMP felt it was necessary, for appearances’ sake, to make some arrests.
If Ces Downes had connections to any of the ‘politicals,’ the Land Leaguers, the Fenians, the Invincibles or any of the splinter groups, G Division rarely found any traces of them. She stayed clear of the well-known figures who claimed to be pursuing the interests of the worker or the small farmer or advancing the cause of patriotic nationalism.
But the G-men often found that there was cross-membership down the ranks between the ordinary criminal and the politicals. Housebreakers, robbers, prostitutes, receivers, pickpockets and miscreants of various types would frequently invoke political motivation when arrested or charged. Sometimes, in Swallow’s experience, the claims were genuine. Often they were expedient, or a desperate attempt when caught red-handed to do a deal as an informant with a G-man.
Estimates of Ces’s age put her somewhere in her forties. But the heart disease that slowly drained the strength from her body had turned her yellow and gaunt and seemed to shrink her frame. Since the early springtime she had grown visibly more frail each week, and from the early summer she had not been able to spend more than an hour or two of any day on her feet.
In more recent years, as she had gradually succumbed to the illness that finally ended her life, she had devolved much of the running of her organisation to her two lieutenants – Vinny Cussen and Charlie Vanucchi.
The question now was which of these two potential heirs would take her place. Both were brutal men. Their victims included people who could not pay their debts to Ces Downes’s criminal empire, troublesome publicans and potential witnesses in court cases. Some of those who crossed Cussen and Vanucchi disappeared, like the fence from Mary Street who refused to pay for the stolen watches, and were never seen again. Others ended up in hospital or badly mutilated.
Charlie Vanucchi ran as many as a dozen burglary and housebreaking teams simultaneously. It was said that Charlie could accurately describe the interior and layout of every fine house and business premises between the two canals that circle Dublin city centre.
Vinny Cussen’s reputation was largely built on poteen. He bought, transported, and when necessary manufactured the cheap, potent whiskey that his gangs supplied to public houses at a fraction of the cost of regular, bonded alcohol that was subject to excise tax.
Each of them regarded the other with the deepest hatred and suspicion.
As long as Ces Downes was in charge, they suffered each other in the confined world of Dublin criminality. But with her dead, would that uneasy co-existence be sustained? Most observers felt not. One man or the other would surely emerge as top dog, and it was unlikely that it would happen without a struggle.
Other questions followed. Would her successor operate according to the rules that she had dictated during her lifetime, or would the criminal network which she led try to extend beyond its traditional businesses and into new districts? Would the transition to a new leadership be peaceful, or would there be a bloodletting as a new order was established?
Pisspot Ces Downes had entered the last days of her life as the calendar turned to June. May had been seasonably warm, but June was to prove memorable for the extraordinarily high temperatures of its days and for the cloying humidity of its nights. Over the days and nights that she lay in her sick-room, at the front of her house in Francis Street, the more the conversations in the streets and courts and alleyways seemed to bespeak the uncertainties in what lay ahead.
Unidentified visitors sometimes came at night to Francis Street and were admitted on her instruction to her third-floor citadel. Invariably the visitors’ features were hidden by unseasonal scarves and headgear. None took more than a few minutes with her. The exceptions were a friar from the Franciscan Church at Merchants’ Quay and two black-robed nuns who spent an hour by her bedside one afternoon and then slipped out into the street.
The gathering heat and the bad air of the June days hurried her end. She would have no doctors. She dulled the pain with laudanum in brandy until she was no longer able to swallow. The ‘lads’ were by her bedside as she breathed her last.
On the evening that Ces Downes died, Charlie Vanucchi and Vinny Cussen came together to the front door of the house in Francis Street. Together, in a rare show of unity, they pinned the black crepe and the notice on the door, announcing her passing, shortly after 8 o’clock.
Copyright © 2015 Conor Brady.
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Conor Brady is the former editor of The Irish Times. A June of Ordinary Murders is his first novel. He lives in Dublin.