Inspiration for story strikes in the strangest ways – as writers we hear snippets of conversation or read something in the paper and the germ of an idea forms. That ‘light bulb’ moment collides with another, and then another, and then the story grows. But even as I plotted Little Bones, meeting and getting to know the characters who arrived in my head, visiting the locations where they live (they are all real), I still didn’t know what had actually happened – how or why the bones of a tiny baby had ended up in, of all places, the hem of a wedding dress. Despite hours of research looking for an explanation, researching baby killers, it was in fact only as I wrote the scene in which one key witness is giving a statement to my protagonists, Detective Garda Cathy Connolly and DI Dawson O’Rourke, that I found out, with some relief, exactly what had happened and why.
Research is key to any novel, particularly crime fiction where the reader is a stickler for detail and is often an expert on forensic technique. While I was trying to get to the bottom of my story, and the motivation behind what makes people kill their children – or other people’s - I came across all sorts of true and terrible tales about baby killers – all as you can imagine, making gruelling reading.
In August 2005, China Arnold was accused of killing her 3-week-old daughter in - and this really defies belief - a microwave oven. Investigators in Dayton Ohio said the baby, Paris Talley, was burned to death in the oven after Arnold and her boyfriend had an argument over who the child's biological father was. Arnold was sentenced to life in prison without parole in September 2008. Judge Mary Wiseman told Arnold during the trial, "No adjectives exist to adequately describe this heinous atrocity. This act is shocking and utterly abhorrent for a civilized society."
Roll forward to 2015 and in upstate New York a shallow grave marked with sticks and leaves was the location where police found the battered body of a two-month-old Bronx boy beaten to death by his own father, who was apparently angry that the baby’s mother wasn’t paying him enough attention.
As the Daily News states, “Little Mason Whyte Feliciano’s helpless but routine cries were apparently the last straw.
What followed was a ten day odyssey that included a merciless murder, a threat to kill again, a convoluted cover-up, a frantic drive, a random burial spot, a psychotic breakdown, a therapeutic confession, a hunt for a tiny body and — finally — the arrest of a domineering, narcissistic, heartless abuser-turned killer, authorities said.”
The stuff of nightmares – the cops I know regularly say that truth is stranger than fiction.
My husband was a member of An Garda Síochána (the Irish police force) for thirty years. These cases are the type that an officer will never forget – and in the coastal town of Dun Laoghaire where he was stationed for part of his service, there are few who will forget the Dalkey baby case. In 1973 a baby’s body was found in an alley close to the Garda station. Wrapped in a plastic bag the little girl had been stabbed over forty times with a knitting needle. The investigation at the time was deeply flawed and the results inconclusive, and in 2007, when the baby’s mother came forward, and the case was re-examined by senior counsel Patrick Gageby, it was found that “most of the surrounding documents, sometime after that date, were lost or mislaid”. When Cynthia Owens made her statement, it became very clear that a paedophile ring was operating from ‘the house of horrors’ as it became known and the Murphy family were systematically abusing as well as selling their children.
For the reader to be sucked completely into a fictional world, the ring of truth must be loud, but every writer has a duty to respect the victims and those affected by real life crime. Little Bones is set in a real place, but the characters and plot is entirely fictional – it tells of the investigation that unfolds when twenty four year old Cat Connolly makes a discovery that shocks her to the core – even more so because she is very single, very young, and, all set to retain her national kickboxing title for a fourth time, she has recently discovered she’s pregnant - and her world is falling in. Little Bones it is about the search for the truth, about what happened, about how it happened, and why. But for Cat, investigating what appears to be an old case, the consequences are very real, very current and utterly devastating.
© Sam Blake
Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland's leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.
Little Bones is the first in the Cat Connolly Dublin based detective thriller trilogy. When a baby’s bones are discovered in the hem of a wedding dress, Detective Garda Cathy Connolly is face with a challenge that is personal as well as professional – a challenge that has explosive consequences.
Follow Sam Blake on Twitter @writersamblake or Vanessa @inkwellhq – be warned, they get tetchy with each other!