West Cork To The World

10th February 2018

It is a long, meandering tale of tragedy.

Across 6.5 hours and 13 episodes, the podcast entitled West Cork rakes the detail of how Sophie Tuscan du Plantier got caught in briars outside her holiday home and was grotesquely murdered.

It details how the Frenchwoman’s body was left out on the ditch so long without a pathologist in attendance that all hope of accurately estimating her time of death was extinguished.

It details more than twenty years of judicial goose chase at the end of which her family, the citizens of Ireland and those of France have yet to see someone charged for her murder.

West Cork is a piece of audio journalism that at times seems quasi-omniscient, so thorough and complete is its access to the cast of characters involved. True to a core theme it unveils, this is a podcast of a peculiarly Irish story made by blow ins (British journalists, American money, state of the art production values). At its heart – a dead woman, and an unsolved crime. In its soul – the craziness of life, the failings of man, and the beauty of Cork.

The premise of the true crime genre is the proposition that ‘it could be your community’. It usually is not.

Only this time, it sort of is.

The identity of the chief suspect in the murder of Sophie Tuscan du Plantier is withheld for four episodes. But of course, I know who he is.

The fact that the chief suspect will he tried in absentia in Paris is delivered as a surprise development in the final episode. Of course, all of Ireland already know this.

The extraordinary backflips and contortions of a Garda key witness-who-turns-rogue and creates mayhem in the case is delivered with extraordinary aplomb, making one suspect that West Cork has finally fallen Through The Looking Glass.

Unless you are from here, in which case you throw your eyes to heaven and think: that damned bloody woman!

It is a high bar for a piece of journalism to tell the insider something new, forcing him to re-arrange the architecture of a murder case which has found coordinates in his mind across twenty years. Audible’s West Cork has so much original reporting, such depth of curiosity, and such breathtaking access to key players and opposing opinions, that it clears the bar.

It becomes a strange kind of magnum opus – the cultural equivalent to a Book Of Evidence. Indeed, it acts as a stand-in for a crucial legal document which, as yet, has never been presented in court.

Listening to West Cork, it is the unspoken that most reveals.

Things Unspoken #1
As the narrative plays out, a striking consistency of theme emerges: No one wishes to leave West Cork.

The suspect, a blow in himself, has buckled down and carved out an extraordinary public profile in a community which is mostly repulsed by his presence. He remains in the same home, situated across the valley from Sophie’s farmhouse, since the night of the murder in 1996. He will not quit West Cork.

Sophie’s son Pierre Louis, who was 15 at the time of her murder, has elected to keep his mother’s beloved home. He returns to Ireland from Paris with his own kids now. Four times a year. Each visit to the farmhouse necessitates passing the site of her death. At night, the Fastnet lighthouse shines into the bedrooms in this isolated home on an isolated peninsula. Her family remains though she is gone. They will not quit West Cork.

Dozens of witnesses line up for the podcast microphone. Most are hardened in their views of the case. One way or t’other. They recall well-worn detail. Who shook whose hands. How he brazenly shows up at the Bantry market, selling pizza and poetry. It seems each interviewee has been stewing in their story since forever. Nothing ever happens here, until this did. The case is grotesque and strangely compulsive. But this is their home. They will not quit West Cork.

Things Unspoken #2
The suspect is a caricature of a drifting opportunist, wilfully placing himself at the centre of the case whilst bemoaning the injustice of it all. He is portrayed as somewhat superior, possessed of a belief that he is more educated, more subtle, more profound than those who surround him.

The story is recounted in a manner to keep us vacillating – between a desire to condemn his black and guilty soul, and channel our shame in presuming a man’s guilt without conclusive proof.

In the podcast’s final moments, as he impatiently waits in a taxi to be dropped at the courts so that he might be re-arrested, the suspect’s phone sounds.

The ringtone is the opening strains of the overture to Carmen. This melody does not appear in the opera until its final scenes, when Carmen comes in glory to celebrate new love with her bullfighter Escamillo, only to discover her jealous former-lover outside the bullring. Full of confusion, rage and anger, Don José grabs Carmen. She struggles to set herself free, but fails. He murders her with a blow, and a knife.

Things Unspoken #3
She walks like a ghost between all of the lines spoken across 13 episodes and 6.5 hours. It is a story that seems never to end. We hear her beauty described again and again. Her movements are reported, lingered upon. We are party to speculation regarding her lovers, her errant husband, her motives for being in West Cork alone two days before Christmas. She is a writer. Her husband is a famous movie producer. She uses her maiden name when travelling in Ireland. She makes journal entries which describe a visceral connection with the valley and sky and sea of West Cork.

But we never hear her voice. Sophie is silent. For all of the audio of the dozens of characters in this sorry tale, there is not one recorded word spoken by her.

As the story progresses she takes further distance. Retreats. Her life becomes a detail, and her death a premise.

In the absence of justice, the chief suspect holds the microphone, and holds court.

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