"At first it seems like a tragic accident, but it's not long before the gossip and the rumours start to swirl and the Gardaí become suspicious when they hear about recent tensions on the farm. And then there are all sorts of secrets bubbling in the background. Everybody seems to have secrets."
This is the pitch for Michelle McDonagh’s début novel, There’s Something I Have To Tell You, a crime thriller that, she tells Ryan Tubridy, is more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit. And Michelle is delighted when Ryan calls the book, "John B Keane meets Agatha Christie."
Michelle confesses to Ryan that – as a reporter for the Connaught Tribune – she had a morbid love of inquests. And even though she doesn’t cover the courts anymore, Michelle still keeps up with the latest real-life cases because she finds them fascinating:
"We hear about these tragedies – particularly in local communities – where there are deaths, or maybe there’s a feud, just – it can be a small amount of money in a will, it can be a right of way on land, or a fence, a hedge between two gardens. And, you know, it can create such pain and such hatred that goes down through generations."
Of course, with real life crime, despite investigations and court cases and inquests, no one really knows what actually happened aside from the people involved. In crime fiction, on the other hand, the author knows everything, so when Michelle decided that the bodies of wealthy local businesswoman Ursula Kennedy and her farmer husband Jimmy would be discovered in a slurry pit, she needed to do some serious research on the subject of slurry pits and the dangers associated with them. She was surprised at what she found when she took a tour of a slurry pit:
"Even as Kate in the book is amazed at the size of thing, I was expecting a small tank. This was huge. It was the whole length of the barn. He brought me all around, showed me how the agitator and everything worked and it’s just, it’s something, you know, so dangerous and so lethal. And it’s part of, you know, an everyday working farm."
As well as her experience as a reporter, Michelle tapped into her own experiences with mental health issues for some of the characters in the book, particularly Christina:
"I would have had my own struggles with depression and anxiety over the years and I’ve written about those for The Irish Times. I’d be quite open about it. But I suppose, she is quite a sensitive character. She finds life can be a bit tough when you’re that sensitive."
The reviews of the book have been overwhelmingly positive, but Michelle tells Ryan that, thanks to her own sensitivity, she can read a good review and amplify the one slightly negative part of it and that’s something she has in common with the Christina character.
As a first book, the writing of There’s Something I Have To Tell You involved a lot of research, which, Michelle says, was very different from the sort of research she’d been used to doing as a journalist:
"You’re reaching out to people, not as a journalist, but as somebody who’s writing a book that may never go anywhere or see the light of day."
When Michelle emailed Margot Bolster, an assistant state pathologist, she agreed straight away to meet for coffee. The coffee turned out to be a very interesting, very dark get together:
"If the people at the next table to us were listening, I mean, she was basically giving me advice on where to bury, you know, how to bury a body without it being discovered. Or, you know, that it would work around the story that I wanted to write. And, you know, we were going into quite a lot of detail. But I would have loved to be eavesdropping on that conversation."
We can all get a sense of it when we read the book. You can hear Ryan’s full conversation with Michelle by going here.
There’s Something I Have To Tell You by Michelle McDonagh is published by Hachette Books Ireland.