Being the latest in a very occasional series in which the Grand Vizier reclines in his hammock with a jeroboam of Elf-Wonking Juice™ and lets proper writers have a say. This week: Kevin McCarthy (right), whose debut novel PEELER is published next week. To wit:
A Debasing Pastime;
or, Notes from a Darkened Room (On FA Cup Final Saturday)
“The funny thing about having a novel published is the number of people who you would categorise as friends—close friends even—who had no idea you wrote novels in the first place. It’s not something you tell people, when they ask you what you did at the weekend. Good weekend? Oh, yeah, I spent it in a darkened room by myself making stuff up.
“I laughed aloud in recognition when I read a recent Guardian interview with novelist Nicola Barker. In it, she says, “Writing is kind of a debased pastime ...” It is, I thought. You slink off, alone, to a darkened room to engage with fantasy. You spend sunny weekends—and early mornings before work and every weekday afternoon and early evenings at it. You sometimes skip dinner to do it. You ignore the sprouting weeds and chipped paint and dysfunctional bathroom fan to do it. You feel guilty when you do it too much and terribly guilty when you don’t do it. Truly, debased.
“So you don’t tell your friends that you spend your free time wallowing in the guilt ridden, guilt driven pastime that is novel writing until, that is, you want them to know about it so they’ll buy your book and make all that reclusive, brain-chafing effort, somehow worthwhile. And in that sense, when you’ve finally had a novel accepted for publication—over a year and a half ago and PEELER will finally hit the shelves next week—it’s as if you are coming out of that darkened room for the first time. Revealing something vaguely shameful about yourself. Dude, your friends say, you don’t strike me as the type to … you know. Write books. Can you hear the music? ‘I’m coming out, I want the world to know…’
“The second thing, inevitably, your friends—or anyone, for that matter—asks when they discover you’ve written a novel that is about to be published is: What’s it about? To this, over time, you come up with a summary of sorts, that reduces the three years of work to a pitch line straight out of Altman’s The Player. It’s called PEELER. It’s about the brutal murder of a woman during the War of Independence. A good cop, an RIC man, a wounded veteran of the Great War, investigates the murder while the IRA investigates it from their side.
“Sounds cool, your friend says. I didn’t know you studied Irish history…
“I didn’t. But I did to write this book. Researching an historical novel is the fun part. It is where you take your general knowledge of a time and place in history, and read out from there and then, read in—primary sources, first hand accounts, police reports, diaries, letters—narrowing the focus until you get inside the heads and the hearts of the men and women who were living through it. How they acted. Why they acted. What they felt. In this, you get beneath the skin of the accepted versions we’re taught in school. Get to the underbelly, so to speak.
“The accepted version is what you are, in essence, reading against and if you read enough, you find that this version merely skims the surface of the truth of history at best. Skims the surface wielding a large brush and bucket of green paint at worst. The interesting thing for me has always been the parts that this conventional, accepted history leaves out.
“JG Farrell, the Liverpool-Irish novelist, renowned for his historical fictions and who died, too young, only a few miles from where I set PEELER in West Cork, wrote: ‘History leaves so much out … It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like.’ The best in popular history strive to uncover this ‘detail,’ lately, more and more. John Keegan, Anthony Beevor, Stephen Ambrose, John D Brewer, Dermot Ferriter, Michael Hopkinson, Peter Hart among others. It is a recent (and lucrative) and much needed step in the democratising of non-fiction historical narrative. But the best historical fiction has always done this. From Robert Graves to Stephen Crane to James Ellroy to Alan Furst. All of these writers scouring the margins, scraping and prodding at the underbelly of the time and place and characters they’ve used and invented to recreate the ‘detail of what being alive is like’—in Imperial Rome or a Civil War battlefield or wartime LA or wartime Bulgaria. With the exception of Graves, they write about the bit players in the larger historical dramas as if they were the grandest players on the stage of history and this is exactly how it should be, because this is how history is to every one of us as we are living through it. It is what I have attempted to do, in my no doubt flawed and modest way, in PEELER.
“Get beyond the accepted version and the War of Independence becomes one fought at close range. More men were killed with revolvers than any other type of weapon. Shotguns were often used, again at close quarters. More often than not, killers knew their victims personally. A war of gangland style, tit for tat murders rather than pitched battles. A war of hitmen and death squads on both sides, hunting marked targets and targets of opportunity. It was a war mainly fought in alley ways and ditches and country lanes.
“The version we are taught in school is one of set piece battles and masterfully planned ambushes; of outnumbered Flying Columns sending hardened British Army troops fleeing in retreat. These things happened, I learned, but rarely. The alley way, the darkened lane; the assassination set up in the brothel used by Crown troops, prostitutes tipping off gunmen and ‘donating’ money for the IRA arms fund. The underbelly.
This is where the War of Independence was fought; this is also, it would seem obvious, where crime novels are set. It seemed only natural to go into the darkened room and come out with a crime novel about a PEELER trying to do his work as a policeman while dodging bullets and yearning openly for an end to the killing and an independent Ireland at the same time. This is how most RIC men felt, you learn in your researches. Charged with defending the Crown, most Peelers desired independence for Ireland. They were rightly terrified by the campaign of murder being waged against them by the IRA and yet felt only disgust for most of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries brought to Ireland to help with ‘policing.’ Brilliant contradictions that are so human you can’t not write about them.
“So you narrow the focus, writing now against the accepted version. Using what you have learned in your research, you find you have to write of such things because you are amazed when you read about them and want other people to know.
Still, even in the darkened room, outside life intervenes. Making the ‘debasing pastime’, on occasion difficult, but more often than not, enriching it. As I sit here now (debasing myself!) I can hear the burping rattle of light and heavy machine guns from a live firing exercise at Gormanstown Army barracks, a couple of miles up the coast from my home. Throughout the writing of my new novel PEELER, this was often the case and oddly appropriate, given the subject matter of the book. There is one line in the book, in fact, that I wrote—not an important one, just a small line of atmospheric detail—just because I happened to hear the gunnery exercise that day when I was writing the scene. It is a post curfew prowl through the war ravaged streets of Cork city for the protagonist. In it, RIC sergeant, Séan O’Keefe … ‘made it back to the Daly house without seeing another soul in the streets, sticking to the shadows, using alleys and laneways when he could. Damp pavements. Shot out streetlamps. The distant roar of revving engines, bursts of machine gun fire.’ Of course, I have taken my description of war time Cork from any number of contemporary accounts, but I’m not sure if I would have included that last bit, the ‘bursts of machine gun fire’ had I not heard, just then from outside my window, the sustained, mechanical pop-pop-pop, stu-tt-tt-tter of the gunners in Gormanstown. The outside world intruding.
“Before one even gets to the darkened room, however—forces him/herself there when the sun is (rarely) splitting the proverbials or the local is showing an Arabic broadcast of Man United on a wet Saturday afternoon that begs for the high stool and warm fire—it is outside life that determines what novel you will begin to write in the first place.
“Time between novels—I had written three other as yet unpublished novels before PEELER—is like this: a restless, half-waking state where ideas for new projects come to you with all the promise of a sure thing and are tossed aside like crumpled betting slips before the initial elation has even faded. You find yourself staring blankly at Late Night Poker on the TV, thinking how you would have folded those eights, when suddenly you’re sitting up, scrabbling for pen and paper and scratching out lines of dialogue, scenes envisioned, plotlines, possibilities. Generally, it’s not long after you’ve done this that you realise you’ve just outlined the plot to HEART OF DARKNESS or LONESOME DOVE or DOG SOLDIERS or GOSHAWK SQUADRON; those favourite novels that lie dormant in the mind and influence, in some way, everything you write. But one day, you sit up and scratch out your ideas and say, Yeah, hold on. There’s something here…
“Like all novels, I imagine, PEELER came from a serendipitous convergence things and events. For me: books stumbled upon, snippets of conversation, a plaque on a bridge.
“With PEELER, I chanced upon Myles Dungan’s IRISH VOICES FROM THE GREAT WAR in the local library returned books stack. Entering the library, I always make my way to this pile first, for some reason and always have since I was a child, anxious to see what others have been reading. More often than not, it’s self-help and the driver’s theory test or Harry Potter novels, but the odd time, a gem like this one reveals itself. Halfway through the reading of Irish Voices—first hand accounts of WWI on all its fronts from the diaries and letters of those who fought, brilliantly compiled and contextualised—it occurred to me to write a fictional account of the bloody assault on V Beach by the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers in the Dardanelles in which over a thousand Irishmen died in a single morning. Fortunately I didn’t write it, as the book I outlined on the back of an envelope was strikingly similar to Sebastian Barry’s book, A LONG, LONG WAY which appeared halfway through the second draft of PEELER. But a seed was planted.
“Luck would have it, however, that a second book landed in front of me at roughly the same time, courtesy of my mother-in-law’s research into her own father’s service in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Your father was an RIC man? I thought he owned a shop? He did, after he retired from the Peelers … He’s listed here, in this book …
“Jim Herlihy’s THE ROYAL IRISH CONSTABULARY: A SHORT HISTORY AND GENEALOGICAL GUIDE is a fantastic history and compendium of the names and details of service of virtually every man who once served in the RIC. Reading this, I discovered that many RIC men had volunteered to serve in the Great War and returned—if they returned at all—to another more personalised sort of war in Ireland in which they were the primary targets of the IRA campaign for independence. I had known this. I had read of this before, but after having read the stories of the men who had fought in the trenches and beaches of Europe and the Dardanelles in Dungan’s book and now the story of the RIC men returning to home to another war, the story was slowly shifting and reshaping in my head. Questions arising, conflicting with my previous assumptions. Irish men killing other Irish men for the sake of Irish Independence? That was the Civil War, wasn’t it? No, not yet. It wasn’t just the IRA vs. brutal Black and Tans and the British Army? No. Yes. There is more to this, I felt. Dig deeper, go wider to the margins and then hone in, find the detail of what being a copper, a gunman, a Black and Tan was like.
“Then, there was the plaque on the bridge in a nearby town. It is outside of a pub I drink in and I pass it every time I enter the pub. It reads: Near this spot Seamus Lawless and Sean Gibbons were Brutally Done to Death by British Forces while in their custody. September 20, 1920. An deis de go raib a n-anam.
“It is well-known locally, that these Occupying Forces were trainee members of the Black and Tans based at the training depot at Gormanstown Aerodrome—now home to the Irish Army and the live firing exercises I can hear from my room—who sacked the town in revenge for the killing of an RIC man who had just been promoted to District Inspector. This RIC man had been drinking in a local bar with his brother, also an RIC man, to celebrate the promotion, when they became involved in an argument—politics, no doubt—with some members of the local IRA company. Drink had been taken, so the story goes—as do most in the crime reports from the local newspaper today—and a pistol was produced, a man shot dead, the town burnt to the ground and two men tortured, then bayoneted to death and left in the middle of the road at dawn amidst the smouldering ruins. What, I couldn’t help but thinking, were two armed policemen—men with a bounty on their heads throughout the country—doing drinking in a bar with armed republicans? What was it like living, drinking, working in a town where virtually anybody could be armed and there were more police per capita than almost any country in the world at the time and yet, common crime was rampant? What kind of war was the War of Independence?
“It was the kind of war, I discovered, where the most violent and bloody of killings were carried out by men who then organised ceasefires for race meetings and market days. It was a war where women were targeted, tarred and feathered, stripped and raped and daubed with red and blue paint and sometimes murdered for associating with members of the Crown forces. It was a place where innocent men were dragged out of bed by members of an occupying army and shot dead ‘while trying to escape.’ It was a war fought by damaged men fresh from the slaughterhouse of the Great War unleashed at a pound a day upon the people of Ireland. It was a war fought by brave, idealistic, articulate and intelligent men on both sides; men who hated war fighting and policing alongside other men who weren’t living unless they were killing.
“This is, really, what PEELER is about. But enough now. It’s sunny outside, for once. The FA Cup final is on the TV. Time to go back into the darkened room. Back to debasement!” - Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy’s PEELER is published by Mercier Press.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.