Aspiring authors are often told to write about what they know, and crime correspondent Michael O’Toole did just that with his first venture into fiction.
he deputy editor of the Irish Daily Star, who has won numerous awards for his journalistic work, has just published his first novel ‘Black Light’.
He draws on his experience of murders and crimes spanning over two decades, including some high-profile Co Louth cases.
The Belfast-born journalist says that although his ambition had long been to write a novel – he has already written four non-fiction books – he had to force himself to do so.
“I remember laying on the couch one night and thinking to myself, I just have to get up and do it.”
He made the decision to write the book after covering the trial of Graham Dwyer, fascinated by how a seemingly ordinary man could commit such a gruesome murder. It was then that he conceived the idea of the “black light” which draws people to the dark side.
He had started writing it, and then the Kinahan feud erupted, resulting in moments when he didn’t have time for it.
“Some days I worked sixteen hours a day and didn’t have the chance to write,” he says, describing the job of a journalist as both “physically and mentally taxing”.
Finally, four years after having given himself the task of writing the novel, he finished it during confinement in March 2020.
‘Black Light’ is a gritty thriller set in Dublin that follows detective John Lazarus as he tracks down vicious criminals who prey on vulnerable youth,
Haunted by the rape and murder of his own sister, he goes to war with a crime gang and also crosses swords with Sullivan, a high profile journalist.
Of Irish-Italian descent, when he’s not pounding the streets, Lazarus cooks up a nasty carbonara and plays cops and robbers with his sons, but his determination to catch a monster threatens to put him out of reach as he’s drawn to the darkness or ‘black light’ hidden within him.
The novel is a work of fiction, O’Toole points out, but is inspired by incidents he covered during his career.
While the central character of Lazarus is inspired by Meath native Detective Sergeant Michael Moran of An Garda Siochana who worked for Interpol in Europe on child protection, O’Toole says his hero shares the characteristics of a number of gardai he knows.
“One of them is a well-known garda from Dundalk, an excellent detective. There’s certainly a lot of him in John Lazarus,” he says, adding that he sent him a signed copy of the book.
He says he’s lucky his job has given him a huge well of stories to draw on.
Although all of the incidents in the book are fictional, he used details of cases he covered to add authenticity to the story.
“I tried to make the book realistic and authentic, and I took excerpts from different cases. This is not just one case, but a million cases,” he says, adding that some cases stayed with him.
His work sees him cover high profile cases including a number of Dundalks such as the murders of Garda Detective Adrian Donohue and Irene White.
“I met Adrian once and he seemed like a really lovely man. I met him in September 2012 and he was shot in January.January 2013 and it really made me aware of the fragility and fragility of life.
“I really had the Adrian Donohue case between my teeth and in The Star we kept after Aaron Brady. After his sentencing several gardai messaged me to say well done as they felt it was important that we kept him in public memory, as many gardai across the country feared he would be forgotten.
Likewise, he believes that the role of the press has been important in bringing Irene White’s killer to justice.
“He’s the one who stayed with me,” he says, revealing that he became very good friends with Irene’s late sister, Anne Delcassian.
‘I admired how she never gave up,’ he says of Anne’s dogged pursuit of justice for her sister who was murdered while washing dishes in the kitchen of her home of Icehouse Hill in 2005.
“She kept the pressure on and kept Irene in the public eye and helped force the issue so the investigation was kept alive.”
O’Toole believes his story that convicted killer Anthony Lambe was about to name the other two men involved in the case led Niall Power to turn himself in.
“This is one of the highlights of my career and it shows the benefits of journalism. Journalism can be a force for good – sometimes we don’t realize how important it is.
He hopes the mastermind who ordered the murder of the mother-of-three will be brought to justice.
“It’s just a shame Anne didn’t live to see it. She was desperate to see justice served.”
As a reporter working for a tabloid, he’s used to being accused of sensational crime, but he argues that all victims of crime are equal and deserve their stories told.
“Whenever someone is murdered, we put it on the front page. It’s the state’s job to protect people and it’s our job to highlight when it’s not happening.”
“I am appalled when some newspapers decide that one life is more important than another. Every life is equal and every victim counts, so they all make the front page, regardless of background, whether Traveller, Irish, new Irish or Eastern Europeans living here.”
He says several publishers turned down the book on the grounds that women wouldn’t like it.
“Claire Byrne interviewed me and said she liked it,” he says with the quiet satisfaction of a man who is right.
Published by Maverick House, ‘Black Light’ is available in print and online, ISBN 9781908518712.