Christopher Owens reviews a recently published book written by the late Lyra McKee.
Can you think of those times when you heard surprising news about a friend/relative and thought "is that why they were behaving that way?" Behaviour you'd normally dismiss takes on new meaning. You ponder if your reactions helped play a role.
Often, it's just random coincidence. But it's an eerie coincidence. One of the many to be found in salubrious, every day interactions.
But when the event is a murder, then everything becomes significant.
And such is the case with Angels With Blue Faces.
Approved for publishing before her murder in April this year, Lyra McKee's posthumous debut is a curious hybrid. Ostensibly about the murder of Robert Bradford by the IRA in November 1981, it uses the allegations surrounding his death as the basis to explore the history of Kincora, the persistent rumours that surround the place to this day as well as musing on the uneasy peace that "post- ceasefire babies" have come to expect and the insidious forces that still lurk where others fear to venture.
Quite a tall order for any writer to achieve. Interesting, McKee adopts a balance between historical fiction and investigative journalism in order to discuss her findings (possibly as a reference to Salman Rushdie's proclamation that "The truth is that truth has always been a contested idea"). Unfortunately, she does not succeed in mastering either style.
The fiction segments feature lines like " 'You need to get out,' he'd shouted before dropping - what was it, a bag? Who could accurately recall what packaging a bomb came in when it was placed directly in your path...", which clearly intend to convey a weariness and hard bitten cynicism in the narration, almost Dashell Hammett/Eoin McNamee style hard boiled noir. Bu it lack the gravitas of the former or the spiritual grasp of the latter.
In terms of the factual elements, the prose is dry and unengaging. The chapters come across more like a series of blog posts rather than a gripping investigation and some of the conversations are so ludicrous that they do not warrant serious thought. For example, she cites a discussion with Jeffrey Donaldson, who believes there might be something to the rumours as his old boss Enoch Powell would articulate similar thoughts and, as Powell was a smart man, that was good enough reason for Donaldson.
Leaving aside the fact that Powell once claimed that Airey Neave was murdered by MI6 and the CIA, it is astonishing that Donaldson (a member of the House of Commons) has never seemingly aired these views before, nor sought to have them corroborated or debunked. I would have imagined such troubling rumours deserved public scrutiny.
Narrative wise, it's a mix of conjuncture, regurgitation and speculation. Lots of half remembered conversations and memories are offered up as supposed evidence, which do little in proving the allegations, or shedding light on Bradford or his supposed crusade to discuss Kincora in public. Often, when writers are aware of how forlorn their goal is, the narrative subtly switches to being about the pursuit of the story and the characters the writer meets as the journey goes on.
Here, the narrative peters out and leaves the reader feeling that they've just wasted their time reading a 102 page book that promises much but delivers little.
It does not give me pleasure writing this review. Lyra McKee was clearly a passionate investigator who wrote about the forgotten and vulnerable. Her death put paid to a life and career that would have left a substantial mark on the national psyche. Angels With Blue Faces is a great and worthy experiment poorly executed. With time and revision, I have no doubt that McKee would have made this a substantial piece of work.
Events have cast the book in a new light, leading to some sympathetic readings, which is understandable but with the news that Faber are due to publish an anthology of McKee's journalism next April, it's reassuring to know that her literary legacy will not simply be this well intended pamphlet.
Lyra McKee, 2019, Angels With Blue Faces. Excalibur Publishing ISBN-13: 978-1910723437
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.