West Cork, a podcast being marketed as a free audiobook on Audible (free to subscribers, anyway) is the latest in a series of true-crime podcasts inspired by Serial, but — of the ones I have listened to — it’s the one closest in spirit to Sarah Koenig’s work. In 13 episodes, the podcast digs into the unresolved murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French television producer and the wife of French film producer, Daniel Toscan du Plantier. Two nights before Christmas in 1996, du Plantier was beaten to death outside her holiday home near Toormore, Schull, County Cork, Ireland, an idyllic getaway spot for folks looking for seclusion from the real world. I say “unresolved” instead of “unsolved” because — for reasons explained below — the court of public opinion has, in many cases, already made up its mind.
The case has been a huge topic of conversation in Ireland for 22 years, generating hundreds of news headlines, but all of the attention the case has drawn has, in a way, become self-perpetuating. The attention lured the prime suspect into the spotlight and, as West Cork takes pains to illustrate, it’s exactly where he wants to be. The suspect is mentioned frequently in the first few episodes of the podcast, but he’s not formally introduced until the fifth episode with what is something of a twist, so if you’d like to avoid spoilers, read no further.
That said, it’s almost impossible to talk about West Cork without talking about the prime — and really, only — suspect in Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s murder. His name is Ian Bailey, and his life over the last 22 years has been characterized by his association with the case. It’s not something that Ian Bailey eschews, either. Like Trump, who ignores the advice of his lawyer and says whatever the hell he wants, Bailey is an active participant in the podcast, and his participation seems to be less about clearing his name and more about keeping that name in the headlines.
There’s a scintilla of evidence to suggest that Bailey may have killed du Plantier, but the case against him largely revolves around Bailey’s behavior before and after her murder. He was a big drinker with a violent temper and a history of domestic abuse, and when a largely unreliable witness with contradictory testimony says that she thought she may have seen someone fitting his description near the scene of the crime, Bailey becomes a suspect. The Irish police accuse Bailey of her murder, and despite the lack of evidence or any motive whatsoever, Bailey exhibits suspicious behavior under questioning, which increases the police scrutiny, which only exacerbates Bailey’s suspicious behavior and on and on until everyone in Ireland thinks he had committed the murder. It becomes almost impossible to view his actions and behavior through any other lens.
Bailey, a journalist, seems to thrive on the attention, and there are even theories suggesting that he killed du Plantier in an effort to boost his career (he was early on the scene after the murder, and wrote about it extensively, even once he became a suspect, using questions that police asked him to frame his stories).
The police, meanwhile, were looking for a scapegoat so that they could make the people of Schull feel safe again and whether or not they believed Bailey did it, he was a convenient mark. They helped to push the narrative, and they even worked at times to frame Bailey for the murder, which weirdly played right into his hands. Bailey wanted to be the victim, and that’s much of what drives the podcast. Like Robert Durst, he feeds off the attention. Unlike Robert Durst, we have no idea if he actually committed the murder. Indeed, after 13 episodes, I have no idea if Bailey killed Sophie Toscan du Plantier, but I do know that he loves being a suspect. He’s made a career out of it, and even 22 years later, as he faces a trial for the murder in France — thanks to evidence that surfaced during his libel trial against Irish police — Ian Bailey relishes the spotlight the case brings him.
All of that makes for a podcast that is equally compelling as true-crime and as a character study. Like Serial, it may also leave viewers vacillating between believing that Bailey is guilty as hell and believing that he’s a hanger-on feeding off the attention. The one downside to West Cork, however, is that by the end of it, the dead woman at the center of all of this is almost an afterthought, which in its own way is a crime of another sort. Bailey may not have killed du Plantier, but he certainly manages to overshadow the memory of her.