Shane Dunphy’s new audiobook revolves around a troubled teenager with mixed feelings about his involvement in a crime gang, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
Audible is about to release the first of three audiobooks by Irish author Shane Dunphy set in the ganglands of Ireland.
The Wexford writer and social care worker says Stories from the Margins: Bleak Alley was inspired by characters he encountered during his time working in child protection, and contacts he made as a freelance journalist.
Narrated by Dunphy himself, the book revolves around ‘Mikey Smith’, a 16-year-old who joins a local gang to escape a troubled home life in an unspecified town.
Along the way, the author weaves in a history of Irish gangs, from the days of Cúchulainn to the Peaky Blinders, and Audible will be hoping its release capitalises on a surge in popularity of audiobooks, as well as the growth in the ‘true crime’ genre.
We hear how Mikey (not the character’s real name) wants to get out of the life of crime, but he’s conflicted.
Although he’s so stressed he suffers panic attacks, he feels beholden to the gang for giving him status, money and acting as a type of surrogate family.
Mikey’s mother suffers from schizophrenia. His dad is an alcoholic who used him as “a punchbag” while drunk.
School acts as a respite until the bullying gets so bad he walks out the school gates at 13, never to return.
On his 14th birthday, stuck at home, hungry and watching a TV that’s broken, Mikey has an epiphany.
There has to be more to life, he reckons, so he decides to sign up for one of two rival gangs.
His pact with the devil means working for gang leader Patrick Griffin, a “dangerous, violent psychopath”, in the words of a local detective inspector.
He’s even rumoured to have carried out a hit on his own gangster father, a career move to show the upper echelons “what a crazy bastard he was”.
Through the book, we hear how Dunphy gets lured into Mikey’s world — and those of secondary characters like Jolene, whose drug-addicted son has run up a €3,000 debt — which quickly raises the hackles of Griffin, who in one scene in the audiobook threatens Dunphy with a knife.
So, given Ireland is such a small country, with characters easily recognised — even with fictional names — how much of the story is true?
Dunphy admits the tale isn’t a documentary account.
As well as changing details to avoid incriminating Mikey and some of the other main characters in the book, the author says he also had to protect himself, both legally and from physical harm.
Names were changed, timelines altered, some situations embellished, etc.
“Griffin is almost based completely on one particular individual, but I would have brought in some traits from these other gang leaders that I would have worked with in the past,” says Dunphy.
"The situation for example with the young guy who’s gay [a friend of Mikey’s] — that would have been something that wouldn’t necessarily have happened with the Mikey character.
"I would have brought these stories together because they’re illustrating themes that I’m trying to explore.
“The way you present evidence in a book like this is done very carefully so nobody is incriminated. The publishers do a legal read.
“In the book, I don’t report Mikey committing any crime. Mikey is telling me that he’s being asked to do things but I don’t in the book depict him doing anything.”
Dunphy says the crime boss was aware of what he was doing.
“Going in as a journalist after Veronica Guerin [reporter murdered in 1996], doing anything to me would have been more hassle than it was worth.
"He warned me off. I wasn’t doing anything that was going to be a thorn in his side particularly.”
He adds: “Because you have to anonymise it the way you do, I’ve heard people describe it as ‘faction’ in that you have to fictionalise certain elements.
"I make absolutely no bones about that. It’s something I’ve done with all of the books I’ve written because of the fact you’re walking that line.”
And while audiences have always had a voyeuristic attraction to such crime tales, Dunphy says his book does not glamorise that world.
“I think that what I show is that it can be absolutely terrifying,” says Dunphy.
“I don’t believe that any of them that have said that to me truly believe it. It’s bravado.
"I don’t think I’ve painted a picture that’s desirable or that anybody will think, ‘Yeah, that’s the life I want.’
"Almost everybody I’m describing in the book who is living in their situation is unhappy.”
Stories from the Margins: Bleak Alley is published by Audible on Thursday.