Monday, January 10, 2011

Rewriting history? True crime meets crime fiction

I’m about two thirds of the way through Eoin McNamee’s Orchid Blue. I’ve been struggling with it a bit. The voice is kind of strange, telling the story in a somewhat detached manner from a variety of viewpoints that leaves the reader (well this reader in any case) outside the story, instead of being immersed in it. This isn’t helped by knowing from the start the final outcome or the timing which flits around the case, even moving up to the present day through an unknown narrator’s voice. The thing that I’m trying to make my mind up about, however, is the fictionalisation of a real world event. Robery McGladdery was convicted of murdering Pearl Gamble and was the last man hanged in Northern Ireland in 1961. It’s not at all clear to me as a reader how much of the story is fiction, speculation and fact, and whether the story is underpinned by research and new evidence unearthed by McNamee. His version of events seems to run counter to the story as told in official accounts and Cold Blooded Murder by Patrick Greg in which McGladdery is clearly identified as the murderer, a verdict that McNamee throws into serious doubt.

Neither true crime nor pure fiction, I am left wondering the extent to which fiction should rewrite recent history, whilst providing no documentary evidence to justify or back-up such a playing with history? And I’m not sure where the boundaries are here. I don’t really have a problem, for example, with Philip Kerr dropping real life people from history into his stories (where it is clear he is using them in an entirely fictional capacity), or fictional characters being dropped into real life events when the history of the event is little altered. McNamee seems to be doing neither however – it is a fictional rewriting of an historical event. It’s neither true crime nor fiction. I’m going to think about this a little more, but if anyone has any views on the lines between history and fiction I’d be interested to hear them.


Anonymous said...

Rob - I think the line between crime fiction and crime fact is sometimes quite blurred. Sometimes, a fictional perspective on a real crime can work quite well (i.e. In Cold Blood). I've also enjoyed Martin Edwards' Dancing For the Hangman, which explores the Crippen trial. But I think everyone has a different "line."

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot, for mentioning my book about Crippen. I do have quite strong views about the blend of fact and fiction, and one key point for me is that I like clarity as to what is fact and what fiction. My idea was to respect all the established facts, so far as they are known, and then use a novelist's mind to imagine a way of explaining those facts, and reconciling the contraadictions between them. So there is nothing in the book that I know to be false, even though it's only my interpretation of the events that we do not know about for sure. And I did find writing a book in this way enormously enjoyable.