West Cork is a remarkably lyrical and sensitive look at the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in Drinane, County Cork, Ireland, on December 23, 1996. Sophie was a French woman in her twenties who owned a holiday house in a remote area of West Cork, and she was found bludgeoned to death on a laneway near her property. Her murderer has never been caught, although a particular suspect experienced a kind of trial by media in Ireland. Living in Australia, I didn’t know the case, which made the podcast especially haunting and intriguing.
Husband-and-wife duo Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde spend the first few episodes setting the scene. This involves detailing Sophie’s backstory, her reasons for acquiring property in West Cork, and her movements on the night of the murder. But it also involves evoking the atmosphere of West Cork itself. Bungey and Ford suggest that we can’t understand this crime without immersing ourselves in the remoteness of this rugged terrain. Their efforts to convey it sonically set the syntax of the podcast as a whole, which pairs recounts with atmospheric fragments of found sound, and often weaves local insights into an impressionistic tapestry.
In that sense, West Cork fuses true crime with a field recording, taking us on a journey with Bungey and Forde as they discover the West Cork landscape and listen to local accounts of the crime in real time. Place plays a big role here, since Sophie’s murder occurred at one of the most difficult locations to secure a crime scene in all of Ireland. Her part of West Cork was still arranged around Townlands, pre-Norman divisions of land, and it was about as far as you could get from Dublin, meaning the main investigator took thirteen hours to arrive after Sophie’s body was discovered. The chief forensic examiner couldn’t make it until the next day.
Most Irish listeners will presumably know that the chief suspect was Ian Bailey, an English journalist who had relocated to West Cork in his early thirties. Bailey was the first journalist to arrive on the scene, and the first journalist to report on it extensively. West Cork replicates that paradox by introducing him as a journalist first, and a suspect second. Since Bungey and Ford are also English, Bailey initially seems like a point of connection to the West Cork lifestyle. He’s initially introduced as a “blow-in,” a casual commentator who takes us through the reasons why he, and other English folk, emigrated to West Cork in the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s quite startling and disorienting, then, when Ian turns out to be the main suspect. It’s also eerie, since the main suspect is now our main point of mediation of the crime. All the early reports of Sophie’s murder came through Bailey, whether directly or indirectly, and Bungey and Forde replicate this process as well. They recall asking Bailey for advice about how they should commence the podcast, as if to take him back to that primal moment when he was the first journalist on the scene. Bailey takes this in his stride, continually providing them with advice in their conversations with him, which comprise a significant portion of the podcast.
Many critics have called West Cork the best true crime podcast since Serial, and it’s not hard to see why, since the essential drama is quite similar to that of Serial, although Bungey and Forde take a different tack stylistically from the NPR approach. As with Serial, we’re essentially scrutinising a single character, trying to assess his trustworthiness and reliability. This angle works much better on a podcast than it would in a television series, partly because Ian’s approach to the crime prefigures the medium of podcasting itself. You sense he would have made a podcast at the time, if he could have, since he’s monetised the case in every conceivable way, using it to bolster his career as a poet and his grad study as a criminologist.
The basic conflict here is whether Ian was framed by the Irish police, known as the Garda, or whether he murdered Sophie in a drunken rage. That means trying to figure out the exact nature of Ian’s need to attract attention to himself – to mediate himself through the case, and the case through his public persona, even when it appeared to be against his own interests. As soon as the crime breaks, he uses his geographic proximity to the crime scene, and his special privileges as a journalist, to get information about the police investigation. Since his sources are private, and the chain of communication is staggered, it’s hard to tell whether Ian has gleaned his insider knowledge from the police or his own direct involvement.
The most arcane possibility here is that Ian committed the crime to resurrect his journalistic career, and make a name for himself in West Cork. That’s pretty far-fetched, but it never seems entirely out the question either, since Ian exudes a strange megalomaniacal oblivion, a need to control any and every aspect of the case – right down to the podcast itself, which he often tries to command like a “back-seat driver.” In part, the drama of West Cork is Bungey and Ford judiciously resisting Ian’s efforts to shape the podcast in his own image – no small feat given his huge ego, especially given they need to maintain a candid cordiality with him.
Again, you sense that Ian really wants to be hosting the podcast – or that he was engaging in a kind of podcast experiment before podcasts even existed. For Ian’s involvement in the crime is tantamount to a radically new form of immersive reportage, perhaps so immersive that he’s actually speaking from the position of the murderer. Maybe that’s why Ian trusts Bungey and Forde so much – he sees them as a later iteration of his project – which in turn permits them to build a remarkably compelling portrait that’s every bit as intriguing as that of Serial.
As a result, my perspective of Ian shifted several times throughout the podcast. First, I thought his behaviour was pretty stock standard – yet another murderer who needs to come back and witness the aftermath of his crime, except that in this case Bailey was revisiting it through his own career, rather than by joining a search party or contacting the police (although he did eventually do both of those things). Then, I though Bailey was simply a stock sociopath, so caught up in his narcissistic oblivion that he could have killed Sophie and totally repressed it.
In the end, though, things aren’t so simple. On balance, it seems more likely that Bailey committed the crime. Bungey and Forde don’t deny that so much as that amplify the strangeness of Bailey’s persona – his need to seek attention at all costs, to the point where the case gradually dissolves into his different personae and projects. That makes him one of the most evasive and irritating suspects I’ve ever encountered, especially when combined with the prosecution’s key witness, who is equally evasive and irritating. Between them, these two attention-seekers cast a wide web of double, triple and quadruple-crossing that makes them both feel implicated, but in ways that remain oblique right to the end of the podcast.
To a certain extent, West Cork locals resorted to folklore to describe the strangeness of Bailey’s personality, comparing him to a demonic figure who was prone to bizarre behaviours during the full moon, when Sophie happened to be murdered. Yet Bailey contributes to these rumours, and to some extent consolidates them – part of many feedback loops in which he complains about his public reception only to augment it in some ridiculous way. You could say that he’s an object lesson in how not to conduct a podcast, since he’s the kind of host who would continually and tiresomely inject himself into the story as relentlessly as he does here.
Rather than either deny or perpetuate the media scrutiny of Bailey over the last two decades, West Cork scrutinises his own media image, his self-mediation, as a forensic object. Some critics have noted that there’s much more of Bailey than Sophie here, which may explain why Bungey and Forde released an additional episode, during Ian’s trial in France, focusing squarely on her family, life and story. But for the most part they chose to respect Sophie in a different way, by extricating Bailey from his insatiable need to shape the crime in his image.
That’s a big job, given the extent of Bailey’s ego, and it means that Bungey and Forde have to confront him head on, and devote a lot of the podcast to his voice. It also means they never come away with a clear conviction of his guilt or innocence. But the very act of querying Bailey’s self-image as a forensic object in and of itself means that some modicum space is cleared around Sophie – that she is given some room to breathe after years of lurid tabloid treatments. And the dexterity of West Cork lies in the way that the hosts engage with Bailey only to displace him, rather than greeting him with the adulation-abhorrence that he courts.