David Peace & Eoin McNamee

Crime writers make the case for historical fiction

From the moment that this David Peace and Eoin McNamee event was announced as part of the Belfast Book Festival, it always seemed strange to this reviewer that it was scheduled to be held in the intimate environs of No Alibis bookstore on Botanic Avenue.

Of course, No Alibis has an excellent pedigree of holding special readings by renowned authors, particularly welcoming those whose raison d’être is to mine the darker corners of society. It is no surprise, however, that by the day of the event, which is free, the organisers frantically spread the word via Twitter that Peace and McNamee are now to be housed in the larger Crescent Arts venue.

While Peace and McNamee are here for the festival, they are also ostensibly guests of Queen’s University’s Schools of Language, Literature and Performing Arts and English, which had organised a conference entitled States of Crime: The State in Crime Fiction.

Academics who had earlier in the day given papers on intriguing issues such as ‘David Peace and the Neoliberal Counter-Revolution’ are afforded the opportunity to hear the mercurial Yorkshireman read from his dynamic imagining of the Miners’ Strike, GB 84 (2004). Peace has a talent for spotting unique historical trends and has branded this period in recent history as England’s ‘third Civil War’.

On paper Peace’s work can often seem dense and impenetrable. Those prepared to immerse themselves in his novels have evangelised about him, however. For the uninitiated it is a treat to hear Peace’s interpretations of modern British history come alive as he recounts passages from GB 84 in his rhythmic North of England tone.

His description of a confrontation between striking miners and riot police is every bit as frantic and cinematic as anything that has appeared on the big screen. It may take time to engage with Peace’s writing, but hopefully this reading will influence a few doubters to rejoice in his magnificent style.

Eoin McNamee is well known in these parts, and like Peace the Kilkeel man has not shied away from controversial topics. His excellent 1994 novel Resurrection Man, which was later made into a disappointing film, is often seen exclusively as a sensational rendering of the Shankill Butchers episode.

Those who have studied McNamee’s novel have come to realise, however, that the Butchers are a peripheral prop in a work that is concerned more with the intimate geography of Belfast and the memories and stories that the streets keep hidden.

McNamee’s work is stunningly ambitious and he perhaps isn’t given the platitudes from local audiences that he deserves. He reads from his latest work, Orchid Blue (2010) – the second in what will eventually become a ‘blue’ trilogy, the first having been entitled Blue Tango (2001).

The novel again draws inspiration from real events and describes the controversial trial and execution of Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland, in December 1961. Lord Justice Curran, a bulwark of the Unionist establishment of the time, condemned McGladdery to his fate.

McNamee’s reading style is not as captivating as Peace’s, but during the second part of the evening Andrew Pepper from Queen’s University chairs a discussion and question and answer session where the controversial tone continues – and McNamee relaxes into a more conversational tone.

The discussion raises a few memorable points. For instance, I found it difficult to agree with Peace’s assertion that history is best described through fiction. The cinemascopic sphere in which Peace and McNamee operate is vita, but can comfortably co-exist with popular or academic historical investigation.

Peace’s Red Riding quartet, GB 84 and The Damned United - a portrait of Brian Clough’s disastrous reign at Leeds United - are as anchored in personal narrative and interpretation as Antony Beevor’s History of the Spanish Civil War, for instance, a work that Peace mentions with some disdain.

Peace’s argument perhaps suggests that he would like to be viewed as a literary agent provocateur, and there is a sense that he plays in a ballpark where he has free reign to structure the past how he wants it to be. McNamee makes a similarly troubling assertion that he often feels himself to be divorced from any sense of social responsibility.

This stand-off between literature and historical interrogation is depressing, and the candid views of Peace and McNamee demonstrate the restrictions that historians have to labour under, while proponents of the ‘fict-story’ genre are generally free to duck any of the more difficult questions about their work.