Monday, 19 March 2012

'A finely wrought thing...' The Ultras by Eoin McNamee

'A bleakly poetic, raging elegy for the twentieth century soul.'
Niall Griffiths
Eoin McNamee

As often as not, it is reading great writers that inspires one to want to write and as a writer, I'm given over to professional admiration (as opposed to envy, which I never,, really...never, ever succumb to...) when I come across a really well-written, well-conceived novel.  One such novel I read this week and it is The Ultras, by Eoin McNamee.

Having the honour of being mentioned alongside McNamee in a couple of reviews as a writer of serious historical crime fiction, I figured I'd better read a few more of his books.  I had read his debut, Resurrection Man, when it came out some years ago and had been mightily impressed, though less so with the film version, which I'm afraid somewhat coloured my memory of the book.  Orchid Blue I read last summer and was blown away by it.  It is crime fiction in the loosest but most serious sense, and the highest of art in every other.  Thus when I came across a copy of The Ultras in our local bookshop a few weeks ago I snapped it up and am pleased to report it is much the same in terms of quality.  

'Orchid Blue may be his finest novel yet.'
Declan Hughes, Irish Times
What the two novels share, besides a Northern Irish setting, is the use of actual, (criminal) events from (recent-ish) history as their starting point.  The novels are also populated by real figures from history--some obvious and well known to even the most casual observer of Northern Irish affairs, while others are obscure and others fictional entirely.  McNamee is so good it's often impossible to tell the difference.  The novels also share a sense of historical events--well-publicised though they may be--as being ultimately mired in the murk of...well, history.  The Ultras is particularly good on this, being ostensibly the story of British Army Captain Robert Nairac of the Grenadier Guards, a kind of free roaming predator who stalks the grey/green blur of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, possibly under the sinister direction of MI5, possibly not and possibly...  

It is this endless realm of the possible and improbable, of knowable and unknowable, that is the concern of the novel.  In life, nobody knows (or nobody is saying), in fact, what happened to the real Captain Nairac or any of his handlers--if he indeed had them--other than that Nairac was last seen drinking in a remote pub called the Three Steps Inn in South Armagh and was never heard from again.  Teeth and blood were found on a local bridge.  Reports of late night, cross border visits to a local meat factory are common.  Statements were made by 'witnesses' at a local RUC barracks with a reputation as bloody and brutal as that of the abattoir to which it is said Nairac's body was taken.  Men have been tried and convicted of murder though no body has ever been found.

 McNamee's brilliance lies in the way he constructs a novel about the construction of myth as historical record.  What is history, he appears to ask, when no one knows anything and those that do are dead or fear death if they tell what they know?  What is history when those in charge of the record construct it to justify the most invidious of political aims.  Here is one passage which does this amazingly well.  In it, a low level British spook is tasked with justifying the internment of republican suspects selected by his sinister boss.  He is creating historical record of the most unreliable kind and it is just such history that McNamee addresses in all its mire of misinformation.
David compiled documentation on them.  He learned that it was more reliable to invent a history for the target. Sightings of targets at known trouble spots by unnamed witnesses.  Spurious forensic evidence linking them to explosives finds.  He added unnecessary detail for authenticity...The more detail you gave, the more it seemed that guilt accrued...[He] thought that the profiles he created transcended the actual detail of the target's life.  The banal accounts they gave of themselves in distempered interrogation rooms.  David was tempted to show them what he had done to their lives.  To show them the finely wrought thing.  The troubled histories he had created, the brooding, overshadowed lives, the terrible symmetry of things preordained coming to pass...

A finely wrought thing, the fictional profile McNamee has created in The Ultras has indeed, in its own way, transcended the actual details of this period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  I'll quote a blurb from Time Out magazine, as it appears on the jacket of my copy of The Ultras, mainly because I couldn't put it any better myself:
'What McNamee brings to the "facts" is a novelist's truth, which can often represent the organic mechanisms at work better than any record.'
Buy it folks.  McNamee is one of the finest writers of historical fiction working today in any country.  His books aren't comfortable, or easy.  They are not the kind of novels to end nicely.  They do not restore your faith in the good of humanity and the power of the noble, if flawed, policeman.    They are also profound, beautifully written, brutal, nuanced and often brutally sad.  The Ultras and Orchid Blue also happen to be just plain brilliant.

Friday, 9 March 2012

New Irish Historical Crime Fiction from Conor Brady

I was thrilled to see some historical crime fiction getting pride of place in the Weekend Arts and Books section of the Irish Times, this Saturday past, in the shape of a full page extract from Conor Brady's new novel, A June of Ordinary Murders.  Read the extract here:

Brady's novel, published by New Island press and launched this week at Mansion House in Dublin, is  tells the story of a murder investigation led by Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) in late 19th century Dublin.  The blurb runs thus:

 In the 1880s the DMP classified crime in two distinct classes. Political crimes were ‘special’, whereas theft, robbery and even murder, no matter how terrible, were ‘ordinary’. Dublin, June 1887: the mutilated bodies of a man and a child are discovered in Phoenix Park and Detective Sergeant Joe Swallow steps up to investigate. Cynical and tired, Swallow is a man living on past successes in need of a win. In the background, the city is sweltering in a long summer heatwave, a potential gangland war is simmering as the chief lieutenants of a dying crime boss size each other up and the castle administration want the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden jubilee to pass off without complication. Underneath it all, the growing threat of anti-British radicals is never far away. With the Land War at its height, the priority is to contain ‘special’ crime. But these murders appear to be ‘ordinary’ and thus of lesser priority. When the evidence suggests high-level involvement, and as the body count increases, Swallow must navigate the waters of foolish superiors, political directives and frayed tempers to investigate the crime, find the true murderer and deliver justice.
I can't wait to get my hands on a copy--payday's how many weeks away yet?--as I've read a good deal about the DMP in my own researches for Peeler and its follow-up, Irregulars.  The DMP were a separate force to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in which my fictional detective, Sean O'Keefe, served until its disbandment under terms of the Treaty post-War of Independence but as in the RIC, its members were Irish, predominantly Catholic and tasked with policing on behalf of the occupying  Crown in Ireland.  The unarmed DMP were a fairly conventional police force, modeled closely on the London Metropolitan Police, while the RIC was a para-military entity, armed to the teeth, with a presence in virtually every village in the country outside of Dublin.  Not for nothing were they known as the 'eyes and ears of the Crown' in Ireland.  All this, of course, is explained much better and in richer detail in Brady's  own history of the Garda Siochana (can't find the fada key on this computer anywhere!), titled Guardians of the Peace: Irish Police.  The other two indispensable books on both the DMP and RIC are by Jim Herlihy, a top drawer historian and gentleman never too busy to answer any of my occasionally ridiculous questions.  They are: Royal Irish Constabulary Officers: A Biographical and Genealogical Guide, 1816-1922 and 

The Dublin Metropolitan Police: A Short History and Genealogical Guide.

Have a great weekend all!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

My name is Kevin and I'm a lexiholic...

I was at an event on publishing, some years back, at the Irish Writer's Centre.  My agent was on the panel along with a woman from one of the Irish publishers (can't remember which) and a young writer who had been recently published.  I had a meeting with my agent afterwards so I'd gone along early and sat in.  It was interesting for me as I had not yet been published and though I can't remember much of what was said, I do recall one thing that has stayed with me.  When asked by a member of the audience what a writer can do to improve her chances of being published, my agent responded with two words:  'Read more.'  He then expanded on this, saying that reading--anything and everything--is the first stage of any writer's apprenticeship.  (Writing hundreds of stories and several novels before one actually figures out what one is really doing as a writer is the second stage and fodder for future post.)  But a love for reading--an addiction to the printed word--he said, was the single most important quality shared by 'successful' writers of fiction he had represented over the years.

This was comforting to me at the time.  Though I'd had short stories published and had won said agent's services on the strength of a reasonably good novel (which we never did manage to sell, thank God!) I was as yet an unpublished novelist.  (Peeler was two more unsold novels in the future for me then.)  But I was addicted to reading and had a drawer full of apprentice work in the form of short stories--some good, some dire--and two prior completed but unpublished novels.  I was on my way, I thought.

I bring this up, because it is my addiction to reading--cereal boxes, Heat magazine, novels of any genre, forms in waiting rooms--that led me this week to reading one of the best short stories I've read in years.  A colleague, knowing my propensities, gave me a stack of old and more recent magazines, thinking I would make use of them during down times at work.  Among them were several issues of the New Yorker, a magazine I'm too poor (and tight) to subscribe to now but which I read avidly in the Boston College library years ago (along with the Paris Review, more of which in a future post) when I was supposed to be studying economics or chemistry.  The story, called 'Someone', is by the Irish-American writer, Alice McDermott.  I had read, some years before, her novel Charming Billy and thought it a wonderful evocation of the Irish-America of which I have much experience.  This short story, which is an extract from her novel-in-progress, is every bit as good.

It appears you have to subscribe to the New Yorker to read it online, but if you have an iPhone or iPad, there apparently exists a free app allowing access to magazine content.  Or you could try the local library, no doubt.  But do try to find it, fellow addicts.  It is simply brilliant.  Here is a link to a short interview she gives to the New Yorker re the story, but SPOILER ALERT, it does give some of the game away so perhaps find a copy of the story before reading it.

Any other addicts have a rare gem they've come across recently?  Let us know!