Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Is This Real Life, Is This Just Fantasy...

I'm reading The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty at the moment and loving it.  Inadvertently, I find I'm on a real Troubles NI fiction kick at the moment.  This novel, as well as The Ultras, which I wrote about previously, are set in Northern Ireland in the 70's and (in the case of The Cold, Cold Ground, 1981) and both reek of cordite, boiled cabbage, bad haircuts, and ingrained hatreds.  Cheery reads, both...  But both evoke the period and the place(s) of the North brilliantly, particularly the sense that nothing was what it seemed and every act was believed to be driven by shadowy angencies with competing agendas.  Another thing both novels share is their use of 'real' characters from history in their narratives.  In The Cold, Cold Ground, Gerry Adams himself makes an appearance and not, I might add, protesting the 100€ Household Charge.

This got me thinking about the use of characters and events from 'real life' in fiction.  I've done it myself in Peeler and, most recently, in the forthcoming follow-up, Irregulars.  I generally, however, find it restricting and fictionalise characters from history, changing names etc.  (As does McKinty in Cold, Cold, introducing us to a certain Mr Scavanni, Sinn Fein spokesman and/or head of the IRA's Force Research Unit (Nutting Squad, I believe they called it)...would anybody care for some steak with that knife?)  I do this mainly because it allows me the freedom to have them act the way I want them to so as to suit the writing--occasionally, they resist direction and act any old way they please but that's true of all fictional characters and grist for another mill--rather than for the writing to have to bend to the demands of the lives actually lived by the characters.  

McNamee seems to have solved this problem in The Ultras by making Robert Nairac a cipher of sorts, an almost mythical construct framed by the (perhaps) delusional documenting of past crimes undertaken by the fallen cop Agnew.  This works (for me) because so much of the work done by men like Nairac and his (possibly) MI5 handlers in the book, as in real life, is mired in secrecy and rumour.  The violence is shadowed by the darkness of the cold ditch, by the quiet, lacerating shame of the compromised informer, by the black hatred of sectarian pseudo-gang set loose on the innocent and not so innocent.

Other authors do this as well.  Ellroy, particularly in American Tabloid.  Alan Furst.  Many others.  My question, I suppose, is: why we do it as writers and why, as readers, do we seem to enjoy reading about 'real' figures in a fictional format?  Is history not enough for us?  Is fiction better able to elucidate truth than the hard data of documentation?


  1. "No escape from reality, caught in a landslide . .." Because fiction fills in the details we all know are (or want to be) true. Well maybe not necessarily American Tabloid. Although maybe so. Ellroy portrayed Kennedy as a 2 minute man and a hound at that. Hasn't that been born out by recent historical documents? "Easy come, easy go. Little high, little low."

  2. We love Ellroy's portrayals of historical figured because they are so vivid, lurid over-the-top, and hysterically funny. I mean, which would ou rather read, a dry biography of Howard Hughes, or Ellroy's version of the man?

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. Definitely Ellroy's! But where I get uncomfortable is is the fictional portrayal maybe, for fictional purposes, doing the life a disservice? I used (Republican hero/icon and founder of the Flying Columns) Tom Barry, briefly, in Peeler but I cut him from a much longer scene--which ultimately was cut from the finished book anyway--where he engaged in a possible war crime. The scene, I think, is a good one and sticks very closely to Barry' own account (of the Ambush at Kilmichael, where the IRA attacked and killed 19 (or 20) elite Auxie policemen who were in fact a kind of pre-cursor to the SAS, being all war veterans and given total licence to "terrorize the terrorists", as (I think) Churchill put it at the time) as well as those accounts and reports of the British Army who attended the scene. In some accounts, the bodies were mutilated, in others they weren't. Who do I believe? Do I have the right as an author to take a figure from history and have him commit fictional crimes he may or may not have done in real life for the purposes of my fiction? Do I have free reign over major figures like Kennedy or Hughes, say, and not more minor (and therefore somehow more human) figures such as Barry or Nairac? I'm not sure where at all I stand on it but cleverer folk than I--McNamee and Ellroy--seem to have worked it out! (Scalaboosh, scallaboosh, can you do the fandango?)

  4. Well, Ellroy is simply practical: When writing about historical figures, he sticks to the dead.

    As another practical matter, I've read both Peeler and The Cold Cold Ground and, while I certainly enjoyed Gerry Adams' appearance, some of the historical figures especially when thinly disguised, might be unfamiliar to readers not intimately acquainted with history. I did not know who Mr. Scavanni was, for example until I read Adrian McKinty's own explanation.

  5. That's true, the dead can't sue. But when dealing with recent history, many victims survive so I'd imagine one would have to fictionalise/rename etc. such figures as 'Scavanni' etc. There is another issue, which I'll write about soon, in the use of contemporary crimes as the basis of novels. I've been left uncomfortable with some such examples recently, particularly in the Irish context. Just have to figure out how to write diplomatically about it!