Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tunnel Vision

I confess it: I can’t get enough of conspiracy novels set around the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. With the 10th anniversary of her demise in Paris’ Alma Tunnel approaching on August 31, I have already devoured and written at length on this page about the pseudonymous Tom Cain’s debut thriller, The Accident Man, which takes its inspiration from that long-ago traffic accident. So admiring am I of this novel (which is due out in July from the UK’s Bantam Press/Transworld), that I went so far as to interview the mysterious Mr. Cain. Quite an experience, believe me.

Now comes a second espionage thriller based on those same shocking events, the rather clumsily titled 12:23: Paris. 31st August 1997 (Faber and Faber), by Irish novelist-screenwriter Eoin McNamee. He casts the British Secret Service in a distinctly less glamorous light than it has benefited from in previous works of fiction. In fact, I felt very grungy after I finally put aside 12:23, my senses still awash in the atmosphere McNamee so expertly evokes of stale and lingering cigarette butts, cold coffee left in paper cups, ingrained body odor, and the sweaty reek of anticipation and fear, all of which cling to the characters in these pages as they become trapped pawns in a sinister game played out by powerful men whose false smiles mask sinister agendas. 12:23 is, in many respects, the antithesis of the thrilling side of espionage fiction as portrayed by Ian Fleming and Tom Cain.

John le Carré sought out that same sort of grungier territory with a few of his tales, notably The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (published in 1963, and awarded the British Crime Writers’ Association’s [CWA] Dagger of Daggers award in 2005) and The Constant Gardener (2001), about the interrelationships between politics and global business in the world of espionage. Other writers of “grunge espionage fiction” would include Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor) with his remarkably cynical Quiller novels (Quiller Salamander, Quiller Balalaika), as well as Len Deighton with his Harry Palmer series (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin), adapted for the silver screen with a young Michael Caine in the protagonist’s role. And let us not forget Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, who distilled away the allure of the spy’s life, leaving behind only the mundane and banal machinations of gray men in gray suits with even grayer senses of morality.

Being a lover of conspiracy thrillers, I awaited an advance copy of McNamee’s new book as if it were a missing lung. I was especially intrigued, as I had met the author several years ago, back when he was presented with the inaugural CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for The Sirius Crossing (which he penned under the nom de plumeJohn Creed”). So, when 12:23 finally hit my doormat at home, I grabbed up the sucker and retired to a chair with it for four hours. I reckon I could have read the entire book in under two hours, since it’s a rather slim volume in terms of page count; but bloody hell, 12:23 is a big book when it comes to ideas, literary style, and the atmosphere it can conjure in one’s head. Consequently, I was forced to read more slowly than usual, in order to absorb every word, every sentence into my fevered mind.

The premise of 12:23 is that several international spies, connected with assorted agencies and working both officially and not-so-officially, converge upon the French capital during the summer of 1997 to watch fate unfold for Princess Diana, referred to in this text simply as “Spencer,” her family’s surname. Rumors have spread that she is pregnant with a child spawned by her lover, Dodi-al-Fayed, whom the agents call “The Arab,” that label carrying a whiff of racism engendered by the dark figures who seem connected here to Britain’s Oxbridge-matriculated “establishment.”

Further complications arise, as talk spreads that Spencer is going to deliver a speech in which she sides with the Arab Palestinians in their ongoing conflict against Israel. McNamee even manages to implicate members of the Solar Temple cult (a secret society linked to the ancient Knights Templar) into his plot, along with shadowy representatives from a cabal of international arms traders who are concerned that Spencer is eroding the market for landmines. And what would a British espionage novel be without involvement by the French? 12:23 offers a bit of that too. However, it’s the interactions between members of a unit of low-level British spies that drives this narrative so forcefully forward. As in another UK thriller set in Paris, The Day of the Jackal (1971), we know in 12:23 the outcome of the story before it commences. Yet, like Frederick Forsyth, Eoin McNamee captivates us as he sends his characters toward a brutal and disturbing climax.

Like the elusive white Fiat Uno that was allegedly involved in Diana’s fatal accident, the plot concludes here with an alarming number of people having vanished, leaving behind a mystery that--like the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy--will probably be cloaked forever in fertile speculation and wild rumors. 12:23 ought to be a very strong contender for next year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.

Interviewed yesterday by Northern Ireland’s Belfast Telegraph, the 45-year-old McNamee--quoting Fleming, of all people--conceded that he doesn’t know what actually transpired in that Parisian road underpass a decade ago:
No, I wouldn’t make the claim that what I’ve written is what happened. I think that, like Ian Fleming said about his Bond books, the plot should be ‘improbable but not impossible’. ...

I felt I could bring something to the story. Part of my brain, the part that studied law, took a forensic look at the events of that night and there are elements that don’t quite add up. As it says in the book ‘the fact that there are conspiracy theories does not mean that conspiratorial politics do not also exist’. There is a certain atmosphere of power politics about that night and there was a lot of strange activity around the couple and the car crash. But it will probably never be known what happened in the tunnel. I don’t think the
Steven’s Inquiry gives up the game. It has the tone of fact about it, but on the facts available there is no way of knowing for definite what happened and there is certainly enough there to provoke deep unease. I don’t know what happened, but certainly people in the public gallery agree that there is more there.
When asked about how he came to pen 12:23, McNamee explained:
I’d never been interested in [Diana’s] celebrity and until recently I’d been wrong about where I thought I was when she died. I thought I’d been in Toronto, but my wife recently reminded me that I had been at home and shouted up to her
when it was on the news. I’d been in Toronto during the funeral. The idea for writing the book came when I’d been in a second hand book store and picked up a copy of
Death of a Princess. As I flicked through it I felt it had many elements of a Graham Greene novel. I stopped writing the book I had been working on and began 12:23 instead--covertly at first and then when I admitted what I was doing to my managing director he said it could be out for the 10-year anniversary of Diana’s death.
In case neither Tom Cain’s The Accident Man nor Eoin McNamee’s 12:23 Paris, 31st August 1997 slakes your thirst for books tied to the princess’ high-speed car crash, today’s London Observer takes stock of the numerous other books commemorating that 1997 tragedy--some much less complimentary than others.

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