How To Murder A Man
By Carlo Gébler
An historical novel with contemporary resonance.
“All histories are really murder stories. Sometimes they are epic and there are generals, and battlefields, and regiments of cavalry and foot, and sometimes they are just small, domestic, and there are pairs of men and alleyways and pistols in the back pocket. Either way, measurement of victory is always the same: he who murders most, wins.
Micky Laffin sat in a car with his friend McGuinness, the publican. The driver, sitting up on the seat behind the pony with the reins firmly in his hands, was Joseph O’Duffy. Micky and his friend McGuinness had left the courthouse in Monaghan town an hour earlier. Now they were coming along a road which cut through a bog. It was evening.
The road dropped and passed along a level stretch. The cuttings here had been exhausted forty years earlier, since when a forest of alder trees had sprung up.
Between the trees there were bog holes and old turf workings and over time these had filled with rainwater. The water was black and stagnant and shone like tar. When an animal fell into one of these, as happened from time to time, it could never get out because the soft peaty edges were too steep and afforded no grip. These unlucky animals would swim for a while and then tire and drown, and then their swollen furry bodies would float in the pools of dark water, buzzing with flies, crawling with lice, until finally the rotten flesh fell away and the skeleton floated down and settled, several feet below, in mud that was thick as treacle and sticky as glue.
Some years earlier two small children had also drowned in a cutting, although they were found straight away, and then two unhappy lovers had filled their pockets with stones, tied themselves wrist to wrist and flung themselves into a hole in the middle of the forest.
They were not found for a week, by which time eels had eaten their faces.
After these deaths, rumours began to circulate. Travellers along the road at night reported seeing the spirits of the dead children flitting through the trees, small phosphorescent shapes that wailed and wept. There were also reports of terrible cries coming from the spot where the lovers had killed themselves.
As a result local people stopped hunting in the forest and cutting trees for fuel; it was believed that to bring anything from this place into the home would bring bad luck on the householder. The area was more and more neglected until eventually even the proper name for the district fell into disuse, and it became known instead as simply ‘the Bad Place’.
The car rattled on. Micky raised his gaze from the screen of alders that flashed past to the hills behind where there was still plenty of good bog. This was where the local men with turbary rights cut their turf nowadays.
Micky saw several trenches in the distance. They were the colour of chocolate. Men cut turf from these trenches, laid out the clods to dry in the sun, and then piled the clods when they were dry into heaps, or stoops. Micky saw row upon row of these now. They reminded him of the piles of stones that sometimes marked ancient graves.
Micky scanned the distant hills expecting to see men at work. The evening was warm and dry, perfect for this type of labour, but to his surprise he could see no one.
Now he wondered, in an idle way, if perhaps everyone who had been cutting turf an hour or two earlier had been told to clear off. he could easily imagine this and the thought troubled him.
Micky turned round in his seat and looked ahead. The car came out of the forest and on to the open road. There was treeless old bog on either side. Forty yards ahead, the road bent to the right at ninety degrees. behind the bend there was a grey stone wall, beyond which rose a meadow. The road, after bending to the right, climbed upwards through this pastureland to a narrow passage at the top. But before they got there they had to pass the wall. Suddenly, Micky had an intuition that something was wrong.
The car approached the corner. The driver, O’Duffy, pulled on the reins and called, “Whoa!” The pony slowed. It was a savage corner which had to be negotiated with care. Micky decided to tell O’Duffy to speed up as soon as the car reached the straighter road on the far side.
The car curled into the corner and a voice cried out from beyond the wall, “McGuinness.” The publican heard his name and turned without thinking. At the same moment the muzzle of a brass blunderbuss appeared. It looked like the end of a trumpet. It was three feet away from the publican’s head.
There was a puff of grey smoke and a dull, muted bang. In the open air a gun makes a quiet noise that suggests it is ineffectual and even harmless. Micky had noticed this before and he knew it was a lie. He knew guns were very effective, and very harmful.
“You were warned,” the voice shouted.
The next second Micky heard McGuinness scream. He had not been hit by a ball but a mixture of metals. Nails and screws, tangles of wire and the pieces of tin had cut every inch of his face. They had cut his nose, his eyelids, his chin. The nails had gone into his mouth, cut his tongue, his gums, his palate, scoring terrible gouges in the soft wet flesh. The screws had gone up his nose, sliced the septum and passed on into his sinuses and cheekbones. The pieces of wire had passed into his ears and ripped through the stretched eardrums. The tangles of tin had run through his hair like a steel comb and ripped the scalp away. There were needles in his eyes. Blood sprang out everywhere. McGuinness threw his hands to face.
“We told you this would happen but you didn’t listen to the Lodge,” the voice shouted behind the wall.
McGuinness cried, “My eyes, my eyes.”
The driver, O’Duffy, screamed “Stop!” at the pony and pulled frantically on the reins. McGuinness fell backwards. Micky caught him on his lap.
behind the car four men, one of them carrying the blunderbuss, had jumped over the wall and were running across the road. They all wore flour sacks over their faces, eyeholes and breathing holes cut in the material.
Micky saw the men as he kicked open the door at the back. O’Duffy had jumped down from the seat at the front and run round.
O’Duffy grabbed the injured man by the shoulders and dragged him through the door. The heels of McGuinness’s boots clattered on the road. O’Duffy lowered him down.
The assailants had crossed the road now. They leaped across a ditch and on to the old bog.
Micky leaped out of the car and knelt down. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and put it across the hurt man’s face. The handkerchief was white and the blood came through the fabric. The blood was warm and thick.
The assailants ran along the far side of the ditch. They were heading for the forest of alders.
Micky stood and pulled a pistol from his pocket. He had loaded it that morning, compacting the charge into the breech with a ramrod, wrapping the ball in a kidskin patch, and pushing it home. Everything in the barrel was thumb tight. He cocked the hammer.
Micky ran down the road and jumped across the ditch. The brown land on the other side was springy beneath his feet. There was a small path worn in the earth here. It was a brown, wiggling vein. He ran along the patch through scrub and coarse grass and green fern.
The rich smell of the fern was in the air.
After a few yards, Micky felt his jacket pinching him under his arms. He undid the buttons as he ran, pulled it off, and threw it down.
The men, the assailants, were nearing the edge of the alders. Three of them were running fast. The fourth man was lagging behind.
Micky was hurting at the top of his lungs; he was forty-five and it was painful to run like this. beads of sweat had sprung up on his forehead and now one trickled down and ran into his right eye. The salt was stinging and he blinked. With his thumb he checked the hammer was in the firing position. One squeeze of the trigger would bring it down on the percussion cap; a spark would jump into the breech; the charge would explode and the ball would fly forward.
The three front runners reached the edge of the forest and disappeared. The last man, the one who ran away with a very slight limp, was pulling at his neck. As he got to the edge of the trees, something came away in his hand and caught on a branch. Micky stopped, pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. The ball was wide and there was a tiny retort as it buried itself in a tree. The man heard the noise of the gun and looked back at Micky. The man shook his head. Because of the flour sack that he was wearing, Micky had the impression that it was a skull and not a man who was staring at him.
Now the man bowed towards Micky, bending from the waist and throwing his hand forward with excessive mock subservience. Micky considered throwing the gun at the man but he was never going to hit him at thirty yards. The man gave a farewell wave and vanished into the trees.
Micky went forward. At the edge of the forest he stopped and peered ahead. There were alder trees everywhere growing at weird angles from the spongy ground. Close to him, the trunks of the trees were white and grey, and the leaves were olive-green and silver.
Further into the forest, the different colours became less distinguishable as there was less light. Further away again there was no colour, and everything in the forest was almost black.
He looked along the edge of the forest, searching for flattened undergrowth, or broken branches. he saw nothing. Now he listened for the sound of a branch snapping, or a human cry. All he heard was birdsong, the wind, and finally the rustle of his shirt and the sound of his own breathing as his chest flew up and down. The men had vanished. The forest had opened its mouth and swallowed them down.
He looked sideways and saw what had come off the neck of the last man. It hung on a branch. It was a blue, spotted neckerchief, popularly known as a belcher after the well-known English boxer. Micky took it down and smelt it. He got a whiff of tobacco and male sweat. It was the only sign that anyone had been there.
Micky turned and ran back to the car, collecting his jacket on the way. He found O’Duffy sitting on the wall, sniffling. His friend McGuinness lay on the ground, blood on the road around him.
McGuinness, he saw, was not moving. Nor was he breathing. He realised his friend McGuinness, the publican, was dead because he had taken over a pub that some other men had decided should be theirs. The other men were there first, they said, and they wanted their man in the premises, not McGuinness. The men warned McGuinness off but he would not budge. he began legal proceedings against the other party. This was why he had been in the courthouse in Monaghan that day. McGuinness had won too, not that it did him any good. They had killed him and now he would never take possession of old Molly Day’s public house. It would go to the other man.
Micky walked to the place where the blunderbuss had appeared and looked over the wall. The grass on the other side was flat. The assailants had tramped it down while they had waited there. Mickey saw two white clay pipes on the ground. He climbed over and picked up the pipes. The bowls were still warm and he tapped them against the wall. A mixture of ash and tobacco shreds and a few red embers tumbled out. Micky took the neckerchief out of his pocket and carefully wrapped up the pipes in it.
It was not until Thomas French came six years later, that Micky saw there was something to learn from all of this.”
Copyright © Carlo Gébler (1996)
In January 1854, one of the lean and terrible years following the Great Famine in Ireland, a new land agent is appointed to bring order to the great and decaying estate of Beatonboro’, County Monaghan. Thomas French is a man with considerable reputation - for fairness, but also for his unusual and highly effective methods of dealing with debt-ridden tenants. As he travels north to take up his new position, however, he has no inkling that his determination will prove no defence against the suspicion and terror concealed beneath the mild beauty of the landscape.
For Mondagahn is a county in the grip of fear as well as poverty; populated by families made bitter by the injusitce of their landlords, and disfigured by decades of violence and intimidation by the legendary Ribbonmen, a terrifying clandestine organisation existing to defend the ancient rights of tenants with merciless savagery and the cruellest torture. For those caught in their stranglehold - and few can escape it - there is no hope of a life free from extortion and terror.
As Carlo Gebler follows Thomas French into the heart of this lethal territory, he evokes an atmosphere of menace and fear with extraordinary power, exposing the roots of prejudice: in poverty, in casual brutality, in despair.
Based on a true story, [it] is a shocking, gripping portrayal of a mainly untold part of Irish history which, in its depiction of violence and a divided community, has great resonance and significance today.
“In his ninth book of fiction, Gebler, the son of Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, illuminates a melancholy page of Irish history. In the 1850s Thomas French takes employment as estate manager for Mrs. Beaton, responsible for a residential community where many tenants haven’t paid rent for several years. He comes to the job with definite ideas of how to proceed; he will not evict delinquent tenants, but will wipe out their arrears in return for their tenant rights. He will allow them to sell their belongings and keep the proceeds, and will pay their passage to America and a new life. These generous resolutions raise the ire of a vigilante organization known as the Ribbonmen, who control and terrorize the local people. The Ribbonmen serve notice that French is to be killed. Two local thugs are hired to do the job, but through bad management and bad luck, several attempts on French’s life fail. The subplot concerns Tim, a poor employee of French’s, who wants to marry his sweetheart, Kitty, whose family disapproves of him. Compliant Kitty rejects Tim, too, and in a fit of anger and grief, he joins the Ribbonmen in their plot to kill French. But the lovers come together again, defying Kitty’s parents; after Tim flees the Ribbonmen, they now need the aid of French and his assistant Micky Laffin. It might surprise readers to learn that there was an equivalent of the witness protection program in 1850s Ireland. Talented storyteller Gebler, writing with a strong, distinctive voice, captures the climate and landscape magnificently: one can smell the burning peat and feel the chill of the fog.” (Dec.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
‘Powerful ... a compelling dark novel ... terrible events are portrayed with an impeccable purity of style, making them unforgettable’ SPECTATOR
‘Powerfully memorable’ DAILY TELEGRAPH
‘A meticulous and absorbing historical fiction’ OBSERVER
‘Plotted and paced as a thriller, this absorbing novel vividly evokes mid-nineteenth century Ireland ... a disturbing and exceptional novel’ IRISH TIMES
Little, Brown & Company
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