Australian Books

Conspiracy theory

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

8 April 2017

9:00 AM

The death of Princess Diana twenty years ago has been the subject of a wealth of conspiracy theories. James Murray’s gripping and disturbing novel Ruffian in Waiting draws its inspiration from an earlier occasion in 1993, some four years before her death, when Diana was photographed at a Remembrance Day event at the Enniskillen War Memorial in Northern Ireland. The three bright red Remembrance Day poppies she was wearing on her coat struck Murray as being all too like a target for a sniper’s bullet. The book’s striking cover, by T. F. Mirabello, makes this dramatically clear. Enniskillen was a notoriously unsafe place for her to visit, on the front line of the confrontation of the IRA, the RUC, and the British military. Six years earlier, on Remembrance Day 1987, twelve people had been killed there in a bomb massacre.

Murray’s background as a journalist with, amongst other papers, the Glasgow Herald, the Daily Mirror in London and Manchester, and the National Times in Sydney, alerted him to the news potential of the hazardous location and the vulnerable situation that Diana had been placed in. His intuition as a novelist (The Pale Sergeant, long-listed for the Booker, and most recently Shark City) registered the fictional potential of a fact whose significance has received little or no attention in the press.

The royal couple had separated in December 1992. The decision not to have them appear together at the 1994 Remembrance Day event at the Cenotaph may have been arranged in order to prevent press coverage from picking up on and exploiting any public disagreements or distance between them. But Murray’s novel suggests a potentially darker implication. Prince Charles was out of the country, away on a trade mission to the Arab Gulf states. What more dangerous a place could Diana have been scheduled to, standing exposed in a volatile border zone, resplendent with the bright red poppies signalling the target for a fatal shot? The ‘Author’s Note’ appended to the novel remarks: ‘no mention has been sighted in posthumous official inquiries and reports as to the prudence of Diana Spencer being at this location perhaps because the relevant data was outside the terms of reference.’ Perhaps.

The possibility that this was a trial run, aborted or thwarted, for the later fatal accident provides the germ for Ruffian in Waiting. In the tradition of John Buchan and Geoffrey Household, it is an action novel of adventure and suspense and at the same time a subtle exploration of political conspiracy. True to the genre, its settings range from the corridors of power of Buckingham Palace with the archetypal intriguing courtiers, the mysterious ceremonies of Masonic lodges, the shadowy world of the intelligence community, a theatrical agency that is cover for an assassination bureau, and more. The sudden appearance of a troop of Scots nationalists in hairy plaids and armed with crossbows, claymores and dirks provide a surreal allusion to the political and historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott and Buchan. As with their work, this is a novel at once fast moving and yet rich in political reference and complex in its motivations. The detailed planning for the assassination attempt has all the careful specificity of something by Frederick Forsyth. It may be worth remarking that Murray and Forsyth both worked, at different times, on the same London suburban newspaper. And the fast pace, tight cutting, and visual clarity of Ruffian in Waiting have all the immediacy and economy of a quality movie as the action advances through London, Scotland and Ireland. Indeed, it is a novel crying out to be turned into a movie. The scene in which the Australian soldier of fortune Garbo engages in combat with a gamekeeper and a highland stag could provide as iconic an image as that of King Kong on the Empire State building.

Connoisseurs of conspiracy theory will be well satisfied that there is, always and necessarily, more than one level of conspiracy. Any of the large cast of characters may be an agent or a double agent or a triple or indeed a rogue, from the posh English courtier Rex D’Acre, to the Irish lady clerk at the palace, red-headed Pamela Fitzgibbon, and her lover, Alisdair Guthrie, responsible for Palace security. The immediate context is the pack of journalists and photographers besieging the royals, slavering for any scandal about Diana and Charles. Attracting negative attention not just to the estranged couple but to the very institution of the monarchy, the on-going media coverage had the potential of creating an upsurge of republicanism and a constitutional crisis in what the Queen called her ‘annus horribilis.’ With no signs of the media hunger abating, a plot is set in motion. An Australian freelance, ex-military, is hired through a series of cut-outs. As his name Garbo indicates, he is hired to clean up things. And as befits the conspiracy genre, cleaning up has its ominous implications, and the initial plot is not the real plot. The proposal to deliver some heavy menace to discourage the press is gradually revealed to be cover for something far more devastating.

The context is undoubtedly political. British intelligence, the Irish Republican Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army are all in play. But there are other less public, more personal, motivations at work, involving compassion, belief and sisterhood, as well as the personal ambitions of those at court. Framing the narrative is the Convent of the Good Shepherd, Connemara. In the enigmatic opening ‘Prologue’ a photocopied typescript is consigned to the flames there, presumably the text or source of this narrative. Presumably another copy has been preserved. And it is with the Convent of the Good Shepherd again that this powerful novel ends, and the words, ‘Sir Jesus, forgive us all.’

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