Doubt is the dominant key of Mark O’Connell’s exhilarating A Thread of Violence, a probing portrait of one of the most notorious murderers in recent Irish history ... O’Connell periodically interrupts his narration with what he calls 'meta ruminations' on such matters as truth and doubt. Eschewing the novelistic conventions of so many true-crime accounts, with their shifting points of view and you-were-there immediacy, he adopts instead the skeptical tone of the essayist ... Which brings us back to that epigraph from Camus. O’Connell admits that he wanted a 'reckoning' from Macarthur, 'wanted him to be Raskolnikov,' wanted him to realize, with O’Connell’s patient assistance, what he had done, and why. But there was to be no such reckoning. As O’Connell concedes in this brilliant and rigorously honest book, Macarthur 'had failed me as a character. He had denied me the satisfaction of an ending.'
It reads like a seance with the spirits of the still-living. Immaculately paced, A Thread of Violence generates a suspense that is formal and narratorial as much as it is a corollary of genre: we read it rapt with curiosity as to how the author will avoid the ethical pitfalls up ahead, how he can possibly pull this off without sensationalism or vulgarity. The moral murkiness of writing such a book at all is intrinsic to its architecture: there’s no getting around that, by fixing his attention on a double murderer, the prestigious writer effectively signs an endorsement on the jacket cover of Malcolm Macarthur’s life, declaring it darkly riveting, profound in its moral implications ... Eschewing the jokes and stylistic brio of his earlier work in favor of a stark lucidity, O’Connell sees in the 'highborn savage' Macarthur a grotesque mirror to his own upper middle-class privilege, and in his crimes an irreducible mystery that is indistinguishable from blunt mundanity. Resolved not to lose sight of the horror of what Macarthur calls his 'criminal episode,' O’Connell nonetheless grants his subject a fair hearing, writing about the elderly murderer with, if not quite a redeeming empathy, a spooked and perplexed grace ... A Thread of Violence instils the certitude not only that no one else could have written this book, but that no other need ever be written on the subject. It’s a marvel of tact, attentiveness, and unclouded moral acuity.
The unbelievability is probably most resonant. The cliche that truth is stranger than fiction hangs over this story ... The impulse to explore and unravel fictions is just the right instinct ... A remarkable book.