Still, it is as pointless judging a book by its author as it is by its cover. I came at this book neutral as I try to with all works although it is rare that I manage to complete the course in the middle lane, invariably veering instinctively to my preferred side before reaching the destination. Still, it is hard to come away from this Morrison novel with a view that it is anything other than alluring, not in the gripping sense of a thriller but in its irresistible ability to draw the reader, even a hesitant and sceptical one like me, into its plot.
The question here is not whether Danny Morrison is a better writer of fiction than nonfiction. Morrison has never been anything other than a fictionalist. Although he would tell the Irish News that fiction is a lie which tells the truth, there is always the sense that Morrison likes it because of the licence it gives to lie. A diagnosed carrier of FAS, Fact Aversion Syndrome, he only ever writes fiction and on this occasion it is in the form of a novel rather than the fictional analysis he invariably performs when he writes for news papers. So immersed in the fictional has his entire writing career been, it would be surprising, even disappointing, were he not capable of producing a good work of fiction.
When the wretched West Belfast first came out, in the jail there was something of a rush to read it. Not that it was worth waiting on. It was piss poor, nothing other than a badly crafted piece of propaganda. The wits were quick to quip that it was being awarded as a booby prizes in pub quizzes, the sort of book you would not object to if someone were to read it to you while you were in your grave. Still, it was a first, an experiment for which he should not be judged too harshly. There were plenty who did precisely that - the unionists could not bear any attempt, no matter how poorly executed, to humanise the community about which the novel was written and, by extension, the author.
Morrison came into jail shortly after its publication - one of the few leaders who did, most of them saving their energy for serving the really hard time in Stormont. His Radio Times column then was easily the pick of the week from APRN. There was no doubt that he could write. He would often tell me I was a good writer. I took it to be more generous than genuine. I admired his acumen with a pen.
Unlike his first foray into novel writing, by contrast, his third novel The Wrong Man is a thoughtful, well written piece of work, that was later made into a play. It made me think that Morrison wasted his talent writing bad fiction which he sought to pass off as truth, rather than sticking with what he was good at - genuine fiction - the type, even if said grudgingly, that should win prizes. Too often and persistently he favoured the eraser more than the pen, and when he allowed ink to flow it was for the purpose of smearing people who thought differently. What could so easily have been a fount of creativity, was used in the service of destruction. Little point in complaining when I understand only too well, as the scorpion told the frog, doing the right thing is simply not in his nature.
Thomas Malone joins the IRA at a highly emotive time, during the hunger strikes, largely because he is star struck by a leading figure within the organisation, Raymond Massey, who is a former blanket protest prisoner. The artistic licence used by Morrison to describe Massey's release from the blanket wings probably works for all but those on the blanket, who would not recognise his description as vaguely plausible.
Soon Malone and Massey are on operations together. The reader is invited to sympathise with Joe Powderly, a UDR member who is having an affair with a woman in the nationalist community. Powderly has to be careful with his words as he denies when quizzed by the IRA being a member of the loyalist regiment: one slip and his life comes to an end. Morrison's humanising of Joe Powderly, was masterful. Years later it is the scene I recall best.
The theme of The Wrong Man takes no time to warm up. In the chilling opening chapter, as part of an IRA investigation, a hooded man is subject to deep interrogation. There is little sympathy or compassion from his captors, a pitiful setting which is the opening move in an empathy gamut within which the author seeks to frame a more nuanced perspective on the IRA than that most are familiar with.
Last year Morrison wrote in the Irish Times that he had placed the character before the cause. In that, at least, he seems to have strayed temporarily from the fictional. It is far removed from the PR puff piece that West Belfast was. Life in the IRA is not romanticised, and The Wrong Man is certainly not a call to arms. Yet, for an organisation that was itself institutionally turned by the British, one Wrong Man falls far short of what amounts to a satisfactory explanation for the implosion of the Provisional project.
Danny Morrison, 1997, The Wrong Man. Roberts Rinehart. ISBN: 1-57098-102-7.