Warning: this story contains some spoilers
The idyllic region of West Cork, Ireland, was once a place where locals did not lock their doors at night and murder was reserved for dramatic storylines on the television.
That changed in 1996, just days before Christmas, when French film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier was found beaten to death outside her holiday home near Schull. Discovered in a blue dressing gown and lace-up boots, it appeared as if she had been running from someone or something.
More than 20 years later, Toscan du Plantier’s murder remains unsolved.
The grisly crime is the subject of the Audible podcast West Cork, a captivating investigative feature that fans of Serial and Making a Murderer will devour. For the 13-part series, husband-and-wife team, journalist Sam Bungey and documentarian Jennifer Forde, spent three years meticulously researching and interviewing everyone from the prime suspect to Toscan du Plantier’s family and the residents of West Cork.
“We had a couple of really interesting meetings with the suspect, which was basically the first hook for us, but then West Cork itself became this secondary mystery,” Bungey tells marie claire over the phone from London, joined by Forde.
“We were fascinated by all the people whose lives have been so dramatically affected by this story for twenty years, and the mystery deepened the more questions we asked.”
Bungey jokes that they were not just scanning through “all of the unsolved murder cases” looking for a compelling story, but were inspired by an article on the lead suspect.
“It all started with—as you hear in the podcast—us reading a piece about the story here in the UK, but it was written with a real 30,000-foot view of the case, talking about the suspect taking the Irish police to court for wrongful arrest and so on,” Bungey recounts.
“It seemed like an intriguing but fairly straightforward case of perhaps police corruption, or the angle that the newspaper took.
“We went to Dublin and to the court case [in 2014] and sat in on that. We were taken by this guy—the suspect—a curious man who was in an extreme situation that was potentially of his own making.”
Forde explains that the suspect had stopped talking to media after legal advice and national scrutiny, but was beginning to share his side of the story again.
“We wrote to him and then we went down to West Cork and visited him and did a little bit of recording. It was definitely access that took light perseverance, and we did spend a lot of time with him,” she says.
One of West Cork's great strengths is how it keeps Toscan du Plantier at the centre of the tragic story; the listener is frequently reminded of the film producer's life in France and Ireland, and how sorely her family misses her.
“In terms of telling a true crime story with a female victim, that’s something that we wanted to get right, particularly when we had her son and her brother and her aunt and her uncle all taking part. It felt important that Sophie was a real person and wasn’t just a body that we would then springboard off to make a podcast,” Forde says.
“That felt like a challenge, particularly with a suspect who’s so intriguing and who people have talked so much about, to make sure the victim didn’t get lost.”
Making the podcast took the husband-and-wife team from farmhouses to courthouses and even the local pub.
“We didn’t know what people looked like, so we figured we’d go to pubs and hang out and get introduced to someone, and they’d know someone else,” Forde recounts.
Often it wasn’t until midway through a conversation that they discovered the person they were chatting to was exactly the person they were trying to contact.
“So we ended up having loads of really awkward situations completely unnecessarily just because we wanted to have a drink,” Forde laughs.
Their solution? “After about six months we realised that maybe we should just stop going to the pub, be more professional and just call people and explain who we were rather than hoping to meet by chance over a pint.”
The journalists decided to tell the story of du Toscan Plantier’s murder chronologically and as objectively as possible.
“The twists and turns that the investigation took, they’re so crazy to us and we didn’t really want to mess with that too much and skip around in time,” Bungey says. “It played out in this crazily dramatic way."
Some of those twists include police corruption allegations, wild love affairs, an international legal battle and a strange theory involving a horse.
Any podcast fan worth their weight in John B. McLemore’s gold knows that a true crime podcast’s life often continues long after its final episode. The Serial thread on Reddit is still buzzing with theories nearly two years after the first episode was released, while the Making a Murderer Subreddit has 56,320 readers to date.
Although Toscan du Plantier’s murder might be new to Australian listeners, the cold case has been a fixture in the press and internet forums in Irelands for years. Forde and Bungey are prepared for new fans theories (from the reasonable to the outlandish) that will likely emerge after West Cork’s debut.
“We are so open to hearing people’s theories, we’re desperate for it,” Bungey says. “But terrified someone will solve it,” Forde adds. “In five minutes,” her husband jokes.
And with the lead suspect in the news again this month (stay away from Google unless you want serious spoilers), it is impossible not to wonder: Will we ever get more episodes of West Cork?
The team revealed they open to the returning to their investigation if there is a dramatic update in the case.
“[The suspect] made this point—there’s a line from one his poems about it—that it is a never-ending saga. There hasn’t been a trial but there have been multiple epic legal fights, including this new one,” Bungey says.
“We’ll be fascinated to see what happens. If something does happen, I think we’d want to report on it.”
Listen to West Cork for free at audible.com.au/westcork.