A Conversation with Eugene McEldowney:
The author of
The Megarry Mystery Series.
Fact: Belfast. Northern Ireland.
Armed robbers invade a Northern Bank. Steal the sum of Twenty Six Million Pounds. Chief
Constable, Hugh Orde "points the finger" at the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Fiction: Belfast. Northern Ireland.
Armed robbers invade a Northern Bank. Steal the sum of Nine Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty five
Pounds and Sixty Pence. Superintendent Cecil Megarry suspects a group of people "fighting the
wrongs against the community."No, history is not repeating itself: History is replicating art. Fact is the breaking news
on RTE Television of 20/12/2004; Fiction is Eugene
McEldowney's A Stone of the Heart published in 1995. How much of these culture
of crime and violence, and the hostile politics of the Northern Ireland of McEldowney's fiction
is the fact of the Northern Ireland of 2005? Peter Anny-Nzekwue
goes in search of the only man who knows all about the Megarry Mystery.
Fact: Belfast. Northern Ireland. Armed robbers invade a Northern Bank. Steal the sum of Twenty Six Million Pounds. Chief Constable, Hugh Orde "points the finger" at the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Fiction: Belfast. Northern Ireland. Armed robbers invade a Northern Bank. Steal the sum of Nine Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty five Pounds and Sixty Pence. Superintendent Cecil Megarry suspects a group of people "fighting the wrongs against the community."No, history is not repeating itself: History is replicating art. Fact is the breaking news on RTE Television of 20/12/2004; Fiction is Eugene McEldowney's A Stone of the Heart published in 1995. How much of these culture of crime and violence, and the hostile politics of the Northern Ireland of McEldowney's fiction is the fact of the Northern Ireland of 2005? Peter Anny-Nzekwue goes in search of the only man who knows all about the Megarry Mystery.
tDQ:: There is no better way to begin this conversation than with Superintendent Cecil Megarry, the central character in all four of your Megarry Mystery series: A Kind of Homecoming (1994), A Stone of the Heart (1995), The Sad Case of Harpo Higgins (1996) and Murder at Piper's Gut (1997). Why is a man with such flaws (always high on nicotine and alcohol) imbue with this ingenuity to solve near-impossible crime cases?
McEldowney: This is a very good question. In my view, flaws make characters human. There was a time in English writing, and particularly in crime writing, when there was a fashion for clean-cut flawless characters. You can take the two principle detectives of Agatha Christie as examples--Miss Marple and Inspector Poirot. They were extremely successful and continue to be so. But in American crime writing since the 1930s and 1940s, the trend has been for characters who are less than perfect and even downright unsavoury. This has reached a sort of climax in the work of James Ellroy where the heroes are sometimes killers themselves and are often as bad or worse than their adversaries. Graham Greene, who is one of my favourite writers, always made a point of presenting characters with flaws and defects, sometimes physical flaws like a scar or a limp. This had an impression on me because it makes these characters outsiders. When I began to write the Megarry novels ten years ago I was seeking to create a hero who people could identify with so I gave him several flaws. He drinks and smokes too much. He can be impatient and lose his temper. And sometimes he can be violent. But he also has the ability for compassion towards those caught up in crime. I think this makes him a more likeable character. Although if I was starting today, I might not have him drink so much.
tDQ: Is your experience as a journalist with The Irish Times a contributory factor in the beauty of the language and investigative nature of the Megarry Mystery series?
McEldowney: I'm not sure about this. My experience as a journalist certainly gave me a better insight into human nature because journalists come across all sorts of strange and weird events, some of
which never appear in print. So it may have helped me with my plots. As regards the actual writing, journalism taught me one important thing which is to write simply and I have striven to do this in all my creative work. Simple writing is a skill in itself. Some people think it is easy but that has not been my experience. When I am writing I am always conscious of the need to hold the reader's attention and to keep him/her interested. So I have to constantly ask if one word would do instead of two and if there is a simpler word instead of a larger one. But simple writing should not be confused with bad writing.
"The novel was a reaction to some of the awful books that had been written about Northern Ireland and which made no effort to place the political violence in any kind of context."
tDQ: The recent incident in Belfast echoed, with a frightened accuracy, the plot of A Stone of the Heart: a heist in Belfast; in a northern Bank; and suspiciously executed by "a pressure group fighting for the community." How much of this culture of crime and violence and the hostile politics of the Northern Ireland of A Stone of the Heart are still there in the Northern Ireland of 2005?
McEldowney: In A Stone of the Heart, I was attempting to show how small people can sometimes get caught up in great events, often unwittingly. It is a political novel, written before the ceasefires and it tried to look at the situation in Northern Ireland and what had caused it and also how the violence from all sides was self-perpetuating. There is a moment near the end of the novel when one of the characters talks about a stone thrown into a pond and how the energy released will reverberate forever. The novel was a reaction to some of the awful books that had been written about Northern Ireland and which made no effort to place the political violence in any kind of context. Of course, the crime and violence continues but the political situation has changed. In fact the ceasefires of 1994 caused me the same sort of problems that spy thriller writers encountered with the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a result, I decided to move Megarry to Dublin for the last two novels. These are straightforward crime novels and have less of a political dimension than the first two novels set in Belfast.
tDQ: As an Irish of Northern extraction, it is understandable that Belfast and Dublin are the historical settings of all your narratives. Are there specific real-life incidents that are the source material for your novels?
McEldowney: I was born in Belfast and lived there till I was 27 so, of course, the city has had a great effect in shaping my life and my thinking. Four of my six novels to date have been set there and the other two in Dublin, which is my adopted home. The Faloorie Man, which was published by New Island Books in 1999, is the most autobiographical of all my books. It has also been the most successful being published in Britain, Germany and Greece. It deals with a small boy growing up in North Belfast and although it is fiction, many of the events in that novel are taken from my own experience. It was the novel that I most enjoyed writing and it is the only novel that has ever been set in that part of Belfast. I tried to convey the great love and sense of joy that I experienced when growing up there in the 1940s and 1950s. The novel also borrowed some of the experiences from my wife's life. I have no doubt that personal events have shaped my other novels to some extent, although I created an RUC man who was a very successful character even though I had no experience of policemen in my background. I think that every writer uses personal experience to some extent in his/her work. It has often been said that we write best about what we know. But the imagination is the powerful tool that fashions these experiences into creative fiction
tDQ: Some critics think that a major flaw in Stella's Story (2002) is that you failed to provide an explanation for her mother's lack of attempt to locate Stella Maguire's whereabouts for the four years she was away from her Fermanagh home. What is your response to this?
McEldowney: This a good point. When Stella gave her baby away and decided to start a new life for herself in Dublin she tells us that she changed and became harder and more ruthless. And of course, she wanted to keep the baby a secret from her family because of the terrible stigma that attached to having a child outside marriage in Ireland of the 1940s. Stella deliberately kept her distance from her family. She wanted to build a career and appear successful in the eyes of her family. So she didn't visit them for four years, even though she did keep in touch with them by way of letters. Remember communications in those days were light years away from what they are today. Still I think this is a valid criticism to make.
tDQ: Last year in a writers' meeting at the Blanchardstown library, where you were the guest writer, you hinted that you would be releasing a new novel this 2005. What is the title? And what is the novel all about?
McEldowney: This book is provisionally titled Hotel del Flores and it is about a group of characters who meet by accident in a holiday hotel in Tenerife and how their lives interact. It is humorous and light and is a new departure for me.
tDQ: We understand that the novel would be released under a pseudonym.
McEldowney: Yes, as Kate McCabe, which was my mother's name.
tDQ: All your previous novels have been published under your real name. Why do you want to publish Hotel del Flores under an assumed name?
McEldowney: It is aimed at a different market and my publishers felt that by using my real name
the readers might get confused because of my previous work. Writing under an assumed name is not unusual in fiction. Many writers do it to separate different genres of novels ie crime and serious fiction.
"I think that every writer uses personal experience to some extent in his/her work. It has often been said that we write best about what we know. But the imagination is the powerful tool that fashions these experiences into creative fiction."
tDQ: You are a renowned crime writer. But with The Faloorie Man (1999), Stella's Story and the forthcoming Hotel del Flores, one easily notices a sudden shift away from crime fiction. Is this a case of being bored with crime fiction and want to seek for new challenges?
McEldowney: As I explained in relation to your earlier question, when the ceasefires came into effect in 1994 in Northern Ireland, the political landscape changed. Until then, Megarry had been fighting the IRA and now they were no longer on active service. For the next two novels, I moved him to Dublin but I felt that something was lost in the transition and I wasn't happy. Also, I wanted to try a new creative direction. I had written four crime novels in four years and I didn't want to become pigeon-holed as a crime writer and nothing else. The next novel, The Faloorie Man, was a move into main-stream creative fiction as was Stella's Story published by New Island Books in 2002.
tDQ: A major theme that runs through your novels is the sense of justice and moral character. How does this reflect your philosophy of life and art?
McEldowney: I have tried in my crime novels, particularly, to portray my characters in a moral light so that even the "bad" guys are not devoid of human qualities. I believe that the human character is extremely complex and things are rarely black and white. The Faloorie Man and Stella's Story deal with particular moral attitudes that pertained in Ireland up till recent times--regarding children born outside marriage and their mothers and the injustices that they suffered. So I suppose the answer is Yes. They do reflect my philosophy of life and art.
tDQ: We began this interview with Superintendent Cecil Megarry and it is appropriate that we end it with him: Should we expect Superintendent Cecil Megarry and a fifth Megarry Mystery?
McEldowney: I would like to bring Megarry back to the printed page and I have a lot of ideas for further novels. I know that he has many fans among the general public. I also believe that there is a huge potential readership for a good Irish crime detective. If I can find the time, I would like to write another Megarry book.
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Contents: Mar-May '11