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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Suspect

My review of the new book The Suspect: The Story of Rachel O'Reilly's murder from today's Irish Daily Mail

The Suspect: The Story of Rachel O’Reilly’s Murder
By Jenny Friel

THE trial and conviction of Joe O’Reilly for his wife Rachel’s murder in June and July of this year held the nation in morbid fascination like few cases of its kind ever have. As 146 witnesses took the stand over the 18 day trial, the Irish media lapped up every detail, and devoted mini-rainforests worth of coverage every day to an insatiable and captive readership.

Irish Mail on Sunday journalist Jenny Friel is in a better position than most to comment on the sensation that was the Joe O’Reilly trial, seeing as she interviewed O’Reilly on several occasions from the time of Rachel’s grisly murder in the bedroom of the O’Reillys’ home in north Dublin in October 2004, to mid-2006, just before the DPP instructed Gardai to charge O’Reilly.

Friel’s new account of the killing and trial, The Suspect, provides a succinct yet detailed overview of the three-year case. Friel is unsparing in her presentation of the gruesome facts, but is always careful to balance that by showing the devastating effect that the case had on mother-of-two Rachel’s surviving family and sons, a move that crucially ensures that the victim is never reduced to a mere abstraction in a case that bears many of the hallmarks of a Hitchcockian piece of fiction (from the adultery, and meticulously-planned uxoricide ultimately undermined by psychological failings, down to the propitiative letter placed in the victim’s coffin that was later exhumed).

Looming over all these proceedings is, of course, the Hitchcockian protagonist himself, Joe O’Reilly. I think it’s fair to say that The Suspect is partly Friel’s attempt to retrospectively understand how she, along with very many others, came to be taken in by O’Reilly on both a human and professional level (O’Reilly favoured Friel and the Mail because of what he deemed the paper’s fair coverage of the case).

But The Suspect is no mere self-critical, dark-night-of-the-soul piece. Friel quite rightly turns the question on the reader, and repeatedly asks: What was it about this case, and this man, that so enthralled us?

Friel posits the theory that it was the very ordinariness of Joe and Rachel’s lives that made their chilling fate so extraordinary. To the outside world, the O’Reillys were seen as the perfect couple. Teen sweethearts, Joe and Rachel were viewed by all as a deeply committed and loving pair, bound together by their love of sport and fitness. Indeed, one of the tragic and grim ironies of the case is that a gym dumbbell, a symbol of the energetic qualities that attracted the two to each other, would become the very instrument that O’Reilly used to brutally shatter the seemingly romantic idyll.

It was this unexceptional aspect of the couple’s marriage that made the horrific nature of bubbly housewife Rachel’s death, the increasing focus on O’Reilly as a suspect, and the emergence of details on how the marriage had soured all the harder to grasp.

More than anything else, however, Friel examines how O’Reilly’s contrived “perfect murder” came to unravel so spectacularly. The author recounts a series of interviews she conducted with O’Reilly in the aftermath of Rachel’s death, in which her first impressions were that “he was a lovely man” who was always polite, friendly and forthcoming (too much so). Indeed Friel’s initial assessment of, and reaction to, the man was an accurate reflection of our own: she was sympathetic, and wanted to accept his innocence, but couldn’t ignore those niggling doubts that his calm, clinical manner (mistaken for grief and shock) and later his outlandishly suspicious behaviour just didn’t add up.

Through the course of her interviews, Friel began to notice “regular Joe’s” hitherto shrewdly-maintained mask slipping. He revealed a bilious and unsubstantiated anger towards Rachel’s family, the Callellys, and, most astonishingly, brought Friel on a “murder tour” of the house. As would emerge after the trial, O’Reilly led several family members and friends on that gruesome pilgrimage to the scene of Rachel’s death, even going as far as to recreate the murder in bizarre OJ Simpson-esque ‘If I Did It’ moments of self-incrimination (that were later deemed too prejudicial to be shown to the jury).

In their tense final conversation (on the topic of a row between O’Reilly and the Callellys over Rachel’s headstone), O’Reilly chillingly joked to Friel that she must have feared for her life coming to interview him about the dispute. A shaken Friel, perhaps once and for all realising his true nature, could only reply yes.

Given her close involvement in the case, Friel’s book is a tightly-structured, informed and analytical piece of work, an impressively non-sensational examination of a case that continues to pique prurient, macabre and curtain-twitching forces in the Irish public.

The Suspect: The Story of Rachel O’Reilly’s Murder, by Jenny Friel, Maverick House, e11.99

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