What lies beneath

Posted on June 8, 2007


Peter Wild interviews Eoin McNamee

You should know up front, I’m not a ghoul. I’m not one of those people who bought tabloids whenever Princess Diana appeared on the front page. I wasn’t one of the people weeping on the pavement clutching a soggy bouquet when I first heard the news of her death. And I can probably count on one hand the seconds I’ve spent in the intervening years parsing the probability of whether or not the death was a murder, the accident an assassination, all of that. So, when I started reading Eoin McNamee’s new book, 12:23 Paris. 31st August 1997, it was, in the beginning, simply a case of reading a new book by a writer who I think is the dog’s bollocks. Eoin McNamee is a writer, like David Peace and James Ellroy, who engages very much with political history in order to talk about what goes on beneath the surface of things. Previously, however, in books like Resurrection Man and The Ultras, McNamee has been embroiled in Irish history. With 12:23 Paris. 31st August 1997, McNamee steps up on to the international stage more than he has previously, writing a novel to all intents and purposes about the assassination of Princess Diana. I asked Eoin what drew him to the story.

“Initially it wasn’t a story I had any real interest in until I picked up a copy of Sancton and Macleod’s Death of a Princess in a second-hand bookshop. I probably wouldn’t have bothered buying it new. But once I started to read it I began to get what Don DeLillo calls the sinister buzz of implication.”

It wasn’t until I was almost two thirds of the way through the book that I started to wonder about how much of what McNamee was suggesting was plausible or grounded in rumour or whatever. Like the Death Note, for example, in which Diana wrote, a year or more before her death, about a plan for her to have an accident in her car. Like the fact that Henri-Paul, Diana and Dodi’s driver on the day of the accident, was in the pay of the French Secret Service (Lord Stevens has traced more than £100,000 he had amassed in 14 bank accounts. In addition, French sources have claimed that in the hours leading up to the crash, Paul received a further £2,000 from an agent of the Gallic equivalent of MI5).

Like the fact that the US Secret Service was bugging Diana’s phone on the night of her death (The American National Security Agency refused to release its files on the affair because of an “exceptionally grave” threat to the country’s security.) It gets worse: there are 14 CCTV cameras operating in the area of the Pont D’Alma underpass and all of them were not working at the time of the crash (although they were working 15 minutes before the crash because a motorist received a speeding ticket after being caught on one of them). The white Fiat Uno that Dan Rhodes appropriated in The Little White Car. It’s generally held to be true that a small white car crashed into Diana’s car as it entered the underpass. No white car has ever been found, though.

Worse, still: James Andason, a French photographer who followed Diana and Dodi around Europe, and was said to own a white Fiat which he had resprayed and sold three days after her death, was found, three years later, charred to death in a burned out car on a patch of waste ground. The death was classed as a suicide despite the fact that the burned car’s keys were never found.

There’s more: Diana and Dodi apparently bought a £230,000 engagement ring three weeks before the accident from Alberto Repossi, a Monte Carlo jeweller who – despite receipts and CCTV footage that indicate otherwise – has since changed his recollection of events. There are other stories. Mohammed Al-Fayyad’s belief that two specific members of the British Secret Service were responsible for the job. The reports of a bright white light emerging from the tunnel in the seconds before the crash (in her memoir Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers, the former MI5 agent Annie Machon claimed Brtitish intelligence paid to have Diana killed by shining a bright light at the car after it entered the tunnel, to prevent Henri-Paul seeing).

There are disputes concerning the emergency services, and the time taken to get Diana to hospital. There are suspicious break-ins (a photographer called Lionel Cherrault, who had been acting as an agent forwarding pictures to international media, had his flat in London broken into. The intruders left all the valuables, and took only two computer hard-disk drives and a laptop).

I said to Eoin that, for me, the more you learn about the night in question, the more shocking it becomes. “I don’t know about it becoming more shocking. What interested me were the layers that began to reveal themselves, and the way that each of the characters become increasingly complex, the way the whole story became increasingly textured and strange.”

When I finished reading 12:23 Paris. 31st August 1997, I reread Eoin’s previous novel, The Ultras and was struck afresh by his obvious interest in the internecine structures that exist beneath the surface of much of what we think we know. Eoin told me, “I’m interested in the exercise of covert power as a study in malign undercurrents but also as an analogy for the way we inhabit the world.”

I asked if, given what he knows about much of what goes on beneath the surface, he ever found it difficult to take news at face value. “There aren’t any face values in news,” Eoin said, “And I’m not sure how much use even the subtext is to you. What we thought of as democracy – a political structure which delivers some measure of power to individuals – is gone, although to my own surprise I still vote, in the spirit of empty gestures, I think, or perhaps in some form of homage to those who thought such things were worth dying for.”

The danger of this kind of approach, is however, that you find yourself labelled a nut. Conspiracy theories have a tendency to undercut themselves just by virtue of existing. “Just because there are conspiracy theories,” Eoin replied, “doesn’t mean there aren’t also conspiratorial politics.” There’s a stat that is currently doing the rounds about how something like 40% of the British public thinks there is more to the death of Diana than the current legitimate version of events allows. I asked Eoin if he considered himself among that 40%. “People respond to an event which provokes a deep unease in the weft of what we know, to the feeling of something going on just out of view. Certain things (such as the erratic nature of the couple’s progress across Europe) militate against there being a conspiracy. But there are too many aspects of the crash which are unexplained. And if you’ve been brought up with the parapolitics of north-eastern Ireland, then you know that the capacity and the cynicism is there to carry out a murder in these circumstances.”

Lord Steven’s report into the death of Diana is a curious beast that, seemingly, shrugs and says yes, there are a few odd things but there’s nothing to them, alright. I asked Eoin if the report added grist to McNamee’s mill, as it were. “The novel had been finished for over a year when the report came out. I heard the conclusions first, and it was this which I think damaged the credibility of the report. Stevens was aiming for a tone of bluff certainly and there are no certainties in this story. The structure of the report is odd, and the conclusions are not, I think, supported by the facts as he presents them. What it does to is introduce a secondary layer of characters, astrologers and tofffs and accident experts.”

I wondered if Eoin was worried about upsetting the kinds of people he seems to enjoy writing about (asked him if he was maybe worried about driving through tunnels at night). He told me, “I wouldn’t be worried on that level. Works of fiction don’t threaten anyone. If they do anything, they help people to see the world a little differently. I’m not sure if that is enough to really cause any anxiety among dangerous men and women.” Saying all of that, though, Eoin added, “There is a strong sense sometimes when you’re snarled at from the press, that you’re annoying the right people.”

Talking about snarling from the press, I asked if (in the light of the furore that greeted Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel, the recent C4 documentary) he was worried about stirring up any controversy at all. “When I was writing the book it hadn’t occured to me that it would be coming out on the tenth anniversary. As far as the children are concerned, I asked myself, would I like to read such a novel about an extraordinary and painful family event when I was their age? And the answer would be no. But if I would want to read it at my own age now (45), then the answer would be yes.”

We kick around the apportionment of blame a little. There are certain theorists who level the blame at Prince Philip and MI5. Eoin said, “Prince Phillip is an unlikely villain. If there is blame then it belongs somewhere in the sphere of the unattributable, the detached, the untraceable part of government. In the spaces between what we know where the impulse to act is driven by malign intuitions.”

As with David Peace and James Ellroy, so with Eoin McNamee. I tell Eoin that it feels like he’s working through something and that the move, from Irish history to a more global story feels like a very conscious step. “I don’t feel as if I’m moving anywhere in the sense that writing about Ireland in that way was always a way of saying that the war there took place in a global context, was not a sui generis outbreak of internecine malice.” I ask Eoin if he can elaborate on that step just a little bit because it feels interesting. He says, “It was in a way the first war of the new century in its anticipation of survelliance culture, subordination of the media and the new warfare. (The five torture techniques used in Long Kesh in the early seventies as developed by the CIA and taught to the British in 1971 were the ones we saw at Abu Graib-an administrative practice, not a one-off) So in addressing this story, I’m simply following that logic into a new terrain.”

To wrap things up, I ask Eoin how subsequent new terrain is shaping up as far as what he writes next. “At the minute I’m fiddling about with new material,” he said. “But I haven’t really formulated things yet, although they’re coalescing around figures like Margaret Thatcher and Robert Maxwell…”?


Peter Wild is co-founder Bookmunch and editor of The Flash and Perverted By Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall. His writing has appeared in NOÖ journal, Word Riot, Nude Magazine and Dreams That Money Can Buy, to name but a few.

Posted in: Interviews