Top lawyer’s insightful crime novel is more than just fiction

From defending crime bosses in the real world to writing about them in a fictional one, Michael O’Higgins gives us an authentic take on policing and the law, writes Cormac O’Keeffe

Michael O'Higgins: The senior counsel, who has represented Martin 'The General' Cahill and John Gilligan, was formerly a reporter for 'HotPress' and 'Magill'. Picture: Don MacMonagle

Given his day job, it is no surprise Michael O’Higgins has something to say about the law and gardaí in his latest work — even if it is a work of fiction.

And, as one of the country’s most respected senior counsel, people are going to sit up and take note.

They include accusing gardaí of being “elastic” with the truth on certain matters and giving “good lies” under oath, often as a quid pro quo for information from criminals.

He says the people who administer the law in the courts — solicitors, barristers and judges — suffer the same “human imperfections” as politicians, with egos and prejudices of their own.

Michael (what he prefers to be called) has represented many of the major criminals, most notably John Gilligan, who was acquitted of the murder of Veronica Guerin. He has acted as defence for Real IRA chief Michael McKevitt.

On the white collar front, he defended Anglo boss Sean FitzPatrick, who was acquitted of illegal bank transactions.

On the other side, he was lead counsel in the prosecution of Limerick gangland figure Wayne Dundon.

Before he went into law, he was known as a driven reporter with Hot Press and Magill, often writing about crime and the North.

He wrote a lengthy profile of Martin ‘The General’ Cahill, based on numerous interviews with the country’s then biggest criminal figure.

All of which, and much more, has fed into his debut crime novel, Snapshots (New Island Books), which is being launched this evening.

The novel is based, and immersed, in the heady days of the early 1980s: a time of Charlie Haughey, Hunger Strikes, the Garda ‘Heavy Gang’, the pro-life referendum and the heroin epidemic in Dublin’s inner city.

There is a cast of colourful, and well-drawn, characters, including two central figures: Detective Sergeant Dick Roche and gang boss Christy Clarke.

Other prominent characters include Christy’s son, Wayne, and local priest and Clarke family confidant Fr Brendan, a man grappling with dark forces.

Other characters are parachuted in, including a young idealistic barrister Paul Rooney, who, Michael admits, is a mini-version of him.

Det Sgt Roche has his own patch, after what, Michael says, was a “corroding” period in the Heavy Gang, where gangsters, like Clarke, were subjected to ‘ice-bath treatments’.

Roche still pursues Clarke, but the pursuit is turning into an obsession.

“Roche is fundamentally a good person, like most gardaí,” says Michael.

He refers to a scene where, under provocation, Roche lands Clarke a dig, in front of assembled gardaí.

Clarke lodges a case with the old Garda Siochána Complaints Board, where Roche “lies through his teeth”.

But as Roche himself reflects “a little part of you died in the process”. Michael poses the question, where does the “small stuff end and the bigger stuff begin” when gardaí go down this road.

The novel excels both as a police procedural and a legal procedural, where the author’s insights into trials makes for entertaining and gripping reading.

Again, Michael makes some points, first through the thinking of Paul Rooney: “There were incompetent cops but few bent ones, More often that not, guards were telling ‘good’ lies, like telling a judge at a sentence hearing that the accused had no previous convictions. It was the quid pro quo for getting a file closed, or for information received, or as a down payment against information that might become available later. Even the ‘bad’ lies, the manufactured verbal that amounted to a collateral admission, were usually told in the firm belief that the accused was guilty. And usually they were.”

In Michael’s own words, gardaí are “generally elastic on procedural stuff”, including prompt access to a solicitor for a suspect.

He says the decisions of gardaí not to tell a judge the full truth of a person’s previous convictions “happens all the time”, particularly in the district court.

He says it was often part of developing a relationship with an informant and “part of police work”, but added “you will not find it in any manual”.

He says most gardaí, like Roche, are good people: “They are working very hard, they are decent, they don’t want to abuse their position and they treat criminals fairly.”

He says his experience with Martin Cahill influenced the Clarke character.

“The psychotic violence is very much Martin Cahill, but there are big differences. Cahill didn’t drink, he was very good to Frances (his wife) and he really enjoyed his children, who all turned out very well.”

He says that while crime bosses can beat the system, the odds are stacked against them: “The State may be slow, but it is a big machine and it will grind away and will eventually get most of them.”

On the process of writing the novel, he says: “I enjoyed writing it, but it also drove me mad.” He has crafted a pacey, smartly-written, authentic crime novel-come legal drama.

And, if dispatches from the Law Library are true, he is scratching away on a second.

Snapshots, by Michael O’Higgins, published by New Island Books, €13.99

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