Aidan McQuade, The Undiscovered Country, London, Undercover, 2020
An Interview with Aidan McQuade
Dominique Jeannerod: I have just recently read your novel, The Undiscovered Country. I have loved it and I keep recommending it to friends. Could you please say a word on the title?
Aidan McQuade: As I was writing the book I went to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, which has become quite celebrated, with Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet. That particular production impressed on me the devastation that revolutions can inflict on innocents, like Ophelia, who through no fault of her own, gets caught up in the machinations. That was an echo of the play I wanted to catch in my book.
The title, of course, comes from the “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. For Hamlet “the undiscovered country” is death, which made it, I thought, an apt title for a book about a murder. But it had the additional resonance, I thought, for the characters who were fighting for the establishment of another undiscovered country: a future Irish Republic.
I found your novel very cinematic. Maybe because of the strong presence of the characters and the dialogue. But also because it is set at a time which has, so far, been more represented in films than in Irish Crime Fiction. Your novel is set roughly at the same time as Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. And like in John Ford’s adaptation of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, there is a sense of threat, suspicion and even paranoia linked to the presence of informers. How important was the choice of time period for you when writing this novel? And what were your points of reference – not only in historiography (you mention some key monographs in your acknowledgments), but also in fiction ? Were there also influences you deliberately wanted to reject?
Very kind of you to say you felt the novel was very cinematic. The film rights are still available if Neil Jordan or Stephen Spielberg is reading.
I suppose I had an interest in war forced upon me as a child growing up in South Armagh during the Troubles. That probably contributed to my choice of profession – working in community development and humanitarian response in various parts of the world, many of them in conflict or post-conflict. That, in turn, deepened my interest in war, to better enable me to do my job, which included planning humanitarian operations for war-displaced people and managing staff security in Angola, for example.
So, I think I’ve wanted to write about war for quite a while. But, I felt, it would have been highly presumptive of me to place such musings in a context like Angola, a country that I love but which I simply don’t have the same depth of knowledge that I have for my own country. My interest in the Irish war of independence has, almost, been life-long, certainly since my teenage years, and it seemed to be a context that provided the opportunity for ruminations and reflections that transcended their geographical and historical specificities and relate more generally to the human condition.
I also wanted to write about the morality of war in a way that people might read. And there are, of course, plenty of fiction writers who have shown just how that can be done in crime or thriller genres. The best Graham Greene – sometimes even the worst Graham Greene – is always about something more than the dynamics of the plot. The same can be said for Eric Ambler and Raymond Chandler and their reflections on the morals of their honest, often tarnished, protagonists in corrupt worlds. One of the great modern exemplars of that was, of course, Philip Kerr, who turned that idea all the way up to eleven with his Bernie Gunther novels – the bruised and brutalised gumshoe who did his best to find some modicum of justice amid the horrors of Nazi Germany.
The novel opens with a note discussing the archival status of the (fictional) text. How accurate did you want your novel to be as a document and to what lengths did you go to ensure this?
I’m sure professional historians of the period will find plenty of errors. But I wanted it to be as rooted in the historical evidence as I could make it. So, I read widely in the history of the time, including the published personal accounts of IRA commanders such as Ernie O’Malley, Tom Barry and Michael Brennan, and other personal accounts in the Bureau of Military History, including Cahir Davitt’s account of his experiences as a Republican Court judge.
I only allowed myself one deliberate historical anachronism: an approach to prisoner management, that, according to a Sunday Times Insight Team report from the 1970s, was first used by the British Army in Korea, but was put into practice by the IRA in their raid on Hazebrouck Barracks in England in 1955. In my book an enterprising IRA officer already knows the approach in 1920.
The absence, or the suspension of the Rule of Law in the exceptional circumstances of war time is very strikingly described in The Undiscovered Country. To what extent did this suspension, and the possibility to describe a sort of Hobbesian world of unfettered aggression, motivate you to set your novel during the Irish War of Independence ?
I quote Cicero at one point during the book: “In times of war, the laws fall silent.” There was certainly truth of that during the Irish war of Independence and some took it as a carte blanche knowing that there would be no recourse for any of their excesses. In his book On Another Man’s Wound, Ernie O’Malley described how he murdered three British prisoners close to the end of the war of independence. And of course the term “Black and Tan” is still a by-word for unfettered brutality.
But many take the opportunity of the silence of laws to abuse their power in every other conflict in human history. At this very moment Vladimir Putin has torn up swathes of international law to allow him to wage unfettered war against Ukraine. So in that regard I hope that readers will recognise that in my book the Irish war of Independence is an exemplar for all wars.
Did the prospect of shedding light on less heroic aspects of the Irish War of Independence worry you, or were you encouraged by the prospect of contributing to a counter-history of this period, of giving a fuller picture, away from the national celebrations?
The War of Independence, certainly in nationalist Ireland, is generally regarded as a just war, including amongst those who repudiate the Provos’ campaign. But one of my characters, Eamon, says at one point, “Even a just war is an evil thing.” So while there are particular resonances of that insight with Irish history and contemporary politics, it is again, I think, an important general point. It is particularly so when you see war nostalgists in Britain and Ireland treating their favoured conflicts as if they are things to be celebrated and those who fought in them as moral paragons, irrespective of what they have actually done.
Your two main protagonists are both educated and political. They are literary, and socially-minded. How representative did you want them to be of young IRA volunteers around 1920?
The IRA of 1920 was a mixed bag regarding class and education and indeed politics. There were socialists and conservatives, and a few who, it transpired in later years, were proper fascists. Certainly the majority would have been rural and urban working class people. But there were more middle-class volunteers too. Ernie O’Malley, for example, had been a medical student and would tramp across Ireland with the Flying Columns with a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets in his back pocket.
The character of Eamon in my book has got his senior certificate from secondary school, but he is mostly an autodidact. So there is a hint of Abraham Lincoln about him: a person who has decided not to allow his lack of formal education from enabling him to learn.
It is their love of books that is the foundation of the two characters’ friendship. So, it is the fact that these two are a bit less representative of the mass of IRA volunteers of the time which I hope and think makes the nature of their friendship credible.
By contrast, the novel shows two characters invested with the highest authority, military and spiritual, as very questionable individuals, to say the least. How would you describe the IRA commander and the Parish priest?
One of the themes I wanted to convey in the book was that unchallenged power corrupts. It is that, I think, rather than any particular individual’s role in any particular structure or organisation that poses the greatest threat to the vulnerable.
It is this moral imperative to find the truth and challenge power that draws my third protagonist, Sophia into the orbit of my other two. As the writing evolved she became, in my mind, very much the moral centre of the book.
While the corruption of the figures of authority might evoke Hammett, their language and that of all the other protagonists, certainly evokes Chandler in their use of a hard-boiled vernacular. How important is this deliberate nod to the conventions of the genre for their characterisation?
I suppose what have become conventions of the crime genre now were not conventions when Hammett and Chandler first used them. Then they were seen as sometimes shocking and, particularly Hammett, cynical. But I think they were trying to write their truths in a way that stripped away certain myths and engaged readers to think anew about their contemporary society, particularly how power, and corruption, worked in their contemporary world.
So, even though mine is a historical novel, like Chandler and Hammett, I wanted the readers to think anew about certain things that they maybe would otherwise take for granted, and to do it in a way that would engage and entertain my readers.
With my dialogue I was trying to write something that was true to my experiences of the stresses of life and work during wartimes. Some people have found the coarseness of some of the language problematic. But there is nothing there that I did not learn in the playground of Belleeks primary school in the 1970s. I reasoned that this was probably the way that people had talked for decades, probably longer. Indeed, in Hamlet, Shakespeare has been accused of using the filthiest pun in all of English literature.
How likely are characters such as Jack O’Riordan, the battalion commandant, to have been able to act, without checks and balance and in all impunity at the time? And during subsequent campaigns of the IRA, throughout the 20th Century?
Certain IRA commanders, and later, National Army officers, committed atrocities during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But many did not. A lot depended on the choices of individual commanders and there was little sanction if there were excesses committed. During the War of Independence Collins and Mulcahy were keen to get action going everywhere and do not appear to have been too critical of any excesses that transpired. During the Civil War the provisional government were quite indulgent of National Army excesses as they were aware that the National Army was the only thing that was keeping the Irish Free State from tipping into the status of failed state.
In Ireland still some sections of the Loyalist community venerate war criminals from their community, and some sections of the nationalist community will immediately resort to whataboutery when reminded of revolting atrocities committed by “republican” paramilitaries. But again these things, distasteful as they may be, are not exceptional. Recently in Britain we had the spectacle of Theresa May, when she was Prime Minister, promising that no British soldier would ever be held accountable for breaches of basic international standards of human rights. And Boris Johnson has moved to grant British soldiers immunity for any atrocities they were involved in during the Troubles.
Some people can’t help themselves when it comes to romanticizing war and indulging those who wage it.
You mention Elmore Leonard as a stylistic influence. Are there other authors, especially in Crime Fiction who were important inspirations in general and at the time of writing?
Leonard, Greene, Chandler and Philip Kerr were certainly big influences on what I have written. Since completing The Undiscovered Country I have discovered Mick Herron and am in awe of what a superbly grotesque anti-hero he has created in Jackson Lamb. I’m trying to work out if I can emulate some element of that magic in my future work.
Maybe because you have, like Jonathan Littell, worked for a long time for Humanitarian NGOs before writing your novel, I thought frequently, reading it, of his brilliant, Goncourt Award winning The Kindly Ones. Not least for the amount of cultural references in both your books. Littell’s SS officer was reading Blanchot, and your IRA detectives have read Freud. How likely was this in 1920s Ireland and did you look at Freud’s reception in Ireland in order to make a point?
I didn’t look at Freud’s reception in Ireland… and now you make me wish I had! I thought that it would not be unreasonable for a character like Mick in my book, the former student, to have come across something by Freud during his hours in the library, but, being a very young man, to have been shocked by anything he might have read.
Mick and Eamon’s shared reading does cover Shakespeare and some of the Greek Tragedians. There is a small echo of Friel’s Translations here, and its depiction, historically accurate, of the study and opinionated debate of Latin and Greek classics in such establishments.
I know, like Eamon and Mick, I still talk about books down the pub, including classics, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. (Some of the most important conversations in history about literature down the pub occurred when Seamus Heaney and Co. used to meet in the Bottom Bar in Queen’s Student Union to discuss poetry. I hope at least some Queen’s students are still doing that.)
I’ve only recently come across Jonathan Littell and haven’t read anything by him yet, though I am looking forward to. Certainly, my experience in humanitarian work, for many years in many different parts of the world, was the only thing to do in the evening was to read. So I amassed a considerable chunk of reading during those years. I imagined the same to be the case for people like my character Eamon, returned to Ireland after years in the trenches. As George McDonald Fraser describes in his memoir of the war in Burma, a lot of reading would be done, Shakespeare included, by men of all ranks between the battles.
When did you write the novel and how long did it take to write? And to be published?
I stopped and started writing a couple of times, and completed the first draft over the course of about a year. The publication was a more tortuous process: I published with Unbound, which is a subscription model of publishing. So effectively I had to market the book before it was published. That took about two years.
The novel remains slightly open-ended and the reader is able to decide whether there has been an even bigger betrayal than the one seen by the two young detectives. This serves to highlight the unlikeliness for justice ever to be served in these precarious times, but could also suggest that the deception from the religious powers might be even greater than the violence meted out by the IRA. This could also open the door to a sequel, in which the character of the priest is revealed more fully even?
I don’t want to say too much about the ending, but one of the things that I wanted to convey is that once you start shooting you can never be too sure that it is only the guilty that get hurt.
Are you working on a new novel at the moment ?
I have spent most of the last year writing a professional book, Ethical Leadership, which is due out in June 2022. So that has rather interrupted my fiction writing career. But now I am working again on a sequel to The Undiscovered Country, tentatively entitled Some Service To The State. It is 1925 and Mick is just out of jail in Northern Ireland. He’s contacted by a figure from his past who asks his help in trying to trace a missing girl…
Thank you !
It has been an absolute pleasure!