A Thread of Violence: A Story of Truth, Invention, and Murder (Hardcover)
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A NEW YORK TIMES AND ECONOMIST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • From the award-winning author comes the gripping tale of one of the most scandalous murderers in modern Irish history, at once a propulsive work of true crime and an act of literary subversion.
“A masterpiece”—The Observer • “Disturbing [and] compelling”—Colm Toíbín • “Superb and unforgettable"—Sally Rooney • “Brilliant”—New York Times Book Review • “A masterly work”—John Banville • “Fascinating”—Emmanuel Carrère • “Morally complex and mesmerizing”—Fintan O'Toole
Malcolm Macarthur was a well-known Dublin socialite. Suave and urbane, he passed his days mingling with artists and aristocrats, reading philosophy, living a life of the mind. But by 1982, his inheritance had dwindled to almost nothing, a desperate threat to his lifestyle. Macarthur hastily conceived a plan: He would commit bank robbery, of the kind that had become frightfully common in Dublin at the time. But his plan spun swiftly out of control, and he needlessly killed two innocent civilians. The ensuing manhunt, arrest, and conviction amounted to one of the most infamous political scandals in modern Irish history, contributing to the eventual collapse of a government.
Winner of the Wellcome and Rooney Prizes, Mark O'Connell spent countless hours in conversation with Macarthur—interviews that veered from confession to evasion. Through their tense exchanges and O’Connell’s independent reporting, a pair of narratives unspools: a riveting account of Macarthur's crimes and a study of the hazy line between truth and invention. We come to see not only the enormity of the murders but the damage that’s inflicted when a life is rendered into story.
At once propulsive and searching, A Thread of Violence is a hard look at a brutal act, its subterranean origins, and the long shadow it casts. It offers a haunting and insightful examination of the lies we tell ourselves—and the lengths we'll go to preserve them.
About the Author
MARK O'CONNELL is the author of Notes from an Apocalypse and To Be a Machine, which was awarded the 2019 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize and short-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He is a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and The Guardian.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE WRITERS PRIZE 2024
One of The New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2023 • One of Slate's 10 Best Books of 2023 • #1 on Air Mail's 12 Best Books of 2023
“Mark O’Connell’s exhilarating A Thread of Violence [is] a probing portrait of one of the most notorious murderers in recent Irish history...[A] deft narrative... Brilliant and rigorously honest.”
—New York Times Book Review
“A scrupulous, thoughtful work… Mr. O’Connell is a supple writer and penetrating thinker who secured extraordinary access to a notorious killer…. Exemplary.”
“A masterpiece...A gorgeously nimble stylist, [O’Connell] writes the sort of sentences that get me checking my own in agitated competitiveness. More to the point, no contemporary literary mind seems to me more subtle, perceptive, or trustworthy...[A Thread of Violence] is a marvel of tact, attentiveness, and unclouded moral acuity. I admire it without reserve.”
"A profound meditation on violence and its roots... This book is an outstanding achievement, and a worthy addition to literary attempts to understand the human propensity for evil."
“Though A Thread of Violence is true crime, there’s no whiff of sensation, no indulging of the lurid. Rather, this open-minded book is like a cross between Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer and Emmanuel Carrère’s The Adversary… It is such an intriguing, light-on-its-feet exploration of a weird, dark crime.”
—The Times (UK)
“Interesting, intelligent, very readable… A Thread of Violence is a tantalizing book, forever reaching out toward ungraspable truths, fingers brushing against them before they slip away again. O’Connell is wandering through the unmapped wilds of the human psyche.”
“[A] queasily brilliant book…. Clever and thoroughly disquieting.”
"[A] gripping portrait… From this increasingly hopeless quest, thanks to his relentless curiosity, integrity, and wonderful prose, O’Connell has created a superb book.”
“Remarkable…A book that tells the true story of a crime while scrutinizing our desire for such true-crime stories and the often simplistic explanations they offer for the terrible things people do.”
“An engrossing study, thick with moral ambiguity and startling detail, a rare volume that should appeal equally to the exacting creative nonfiction maven and the insatiable true-crime addict.”
—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
“Ruminative, sophisticated, urgent, and inky dark. O’Connell is one of the best non-fiction writers around.... Biographers and writers of true crime, I suspect, will come to regard this as a classic. It is more than a niche masterwork, though; it is an exceptional piece of storytelling.”
—Sunday Times (UK)
“About as good as true crime gets… A paragon of its genre [and] a consummate example of the intellectual heights to which that genre can ascend.”
—Prospect Magazine (UK)
“In A Thread of Violence, Mark O’Connell has investigated, with immense skill and insight, the mind of a double murderer, and in the process has shown the essential mysteriousness of such a mind—perhaps of any mind. The result is a beautifully wrought narrative that is at once frightening and thrilling. A masterly work.”
—John Banville, Booker Prize–winning author of The Sea and The Singularities
“A Thread of Violence is nourished by a powerful moral intelligence and an enormous curiosity. Mark O'Connell circles the inner life of the murderer Malcolm Macarthur with subtlety and forensic care. As he seeks, in many interviews, to explore Macarthur's motives and sense of self, he becomes not only a great listener but a superb questioner, creating a narrative that is complex and disturbing as well as intriguing and compelling.”
—Colm Toíbín, author of The Magician and New York Times bestseller Brooklyn
"Like all great books, A Thread of Violence is the document of a great writer's obsession. Mark O'Connell draws the reader into a deeply engrossing story, and at the same time into a complex investigation of human brutality and of narrative writing itself. This is a superb and unforgettable book."
—Sally Rooney, New York Times bestselling author of Normal People
“In the gallery of criminals who have fascinated writers, the elegant Malcolm Macarthur is one of the most enigmatic. And in the pantheon of writers fascinated by criminals, Mark O'Connell proves himself among the most brilliant. It is one of the boundaries that cut humanity in two: those who have killed someone, those who have not. O’Connell roams around this boundary, in this gray area, from which he has brought a fascinating narrative.”
—Emmanuel Carrère, internationally bestselling author of The Adversary
"A Thread of Violence stays with you for weeks. The eerie, tenuous relationship between journalist and killer lives in the legacy of Janet Malcolm and Truman Capote."
—Caitlin Doughty, New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
"Mark O'Connell takes us on a deep dive into the most unfathomable depths of human nature. The awful killings that made Malcolm Macarthur Ireland's most notorious murderer are the thread he holds as he takes us into the labyrinth of the killer's mind. What we find there is an extraordinary weave of truths and fantasies, of abjection and self-delusion. Evil, in O'Connell's morally complex and mesmerising tale, is revealed as both banal and mysterious."
—Fintan O'Toole, New York Times bestselling author of We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland
“A ridiculously good book…. The effect on the reader is like being in the eye of a hurricane—terrifyingly calm—the moral vortex at the heart of breathtaking violence…. Totally stressful and addictive.”
—Sam Knight, New Yorker staff writer and author of The Premonitions Bureau
"I read it at one sitting... The sensitivity of the work and the attention to language made this book one of the best of its kind."
—Dr. Gwen Adshead, forensic psychiatrist and author of The Devil You Know
"A masterful, haunting book by an author at the height of his powers. Mark O'Connell asks us how much we can ever understand about the darkness that resides in other people, and in ourselves."
—Ed Caesar, New Yorker staff writer and author of The Moth and the Mountain
"Recounted with spectacularly affecting brilliance and restraint... Run, don’t walk, I say."
—Philippe Sands, New Statesman
“An engrossing and intimate glimpse into the psyche of an actual yet improbable murderer… O'Connell is a patient, thorough interlocutor…producing a case study about the chilling ease with which one man can be driven to murder.”
—Shelf Awareness (starred review)
"[A] true crime gem.... Swirling together dogged reporting with questions about the media’s coverage of crime, O’Connell manages a gripping account that casts a skeptical eye on its own genre. Even readers put off by profiles of killers will be piqued."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A vividly written account.... The resulting picture of the killer is seen as if through a proverbial dark glass—and it’s as chilling, in the end, as any Hitchcock film. A superb study of real-life crime and punishment."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] dynamic, surprising, and utterly absorbing work of literary true crime… Readers will be powerless to stop, beguiled by the book's powerful undercurrent.”
—Booklist (starred review)