Following the recent spat over the relative merits of fiction and non-fiction, Eoin McNamee's new book - a novel about a true crime - is a timely reminder of the Third Way. By putting actual people and events into a narrative mixture of fact, conjecture and invention, he produces a story as compelling as it is convincing. Literary "faction" is as old as storytelling itself - especially in the crime genre, where many a real-life murder case is plotted too intriguingly for a novelist to resist. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are classic modern examples. McNamee's novel, set in Northern Ireland, bears comparison with these as a model of its type.
He takes as his framework the vicious killing of a judge's daughter, Patricia Curran, aged 19, whose body was found in the driveway of her home in the early hours of 13 November 1952. The first doctor to examine her mistook the wounds for those of a shotgun blast, until a post-mortem revealed that she had been stabbed 37 times. If establishing how she died was tricky, finding out who killed her and why (and even where) proved nightmarishly complicated. Not least because political interference and the influence wielded by the victim's father added to the pressure for a swift result. The officer imposed on the investigation by Scotland Yard - the infamous Chief Inspector John Capstick - chose to expedite matters by forcing a confession out of the only half-decent suspect. Nearly 50 years later, McNamee uses his novel to reopen the case. Drawing on actual police and court records, including evidence suppressed at the time, as well as press reports, memoirs and interviews with those few protagonists still alive, he exposes a shocking miscarriage of justice.
But, first and foremost, this is a crackingly well-told literary whodunnit. Like a good detective, the author gathers clues: he examines the murder scene, assesses the victim's character, lifestyle, family and associates, and traces her final movements. The picture that emerges is one of a teenager whose determination to plunge headlong, and with relish, into womanhood disturbed her parents and the local townsfolk. Even while she was alive she was the subject of scandal-mongering; with her killing, the traces of her true personality were irretrievably lost beneath layers of rumour and gossip. Was she a spoilt, promiscuous little rich girl, a refreshingly precocious, confident free spirit, or a dark, mysterious creature courting her own tragic end? Death made her into a myth. As such, she provides McNamee with an ideal heroine. There is also a powerful cast of secondary characters: her father, an ambitious schemer facing financial ruin; her religious zealot of a brother; her mother, trapped in a miserable marriage and driven to despair by Patricia's wilfulness. The male lead, and the other victim in the case, is Iain Hay Gordon, an impressionable young soldier on national service, who briefly befriends the family. As a homosexual (that is, an all-purpose pervert, in those days) with no alibi and a suspiciously unhealthy interest in the murder, he is an easy scapegoat.
This is an atmospheric book, recreating a tangible sense of the stifled, secretive lives of individuals in an age when the maintenance of collective respectability was more coercive, and less illusory, than it is today. The plot may have been served up on a plate for McNamee, but the way he refashions it - altering the chronology, teasing out vital details - transforms a fascinating historical episode into a gripping drama. The characters, too, are not of his invention, but in characterising them - in intuiting the physical, emotional and psychological forces that motivate human behaviour - he brings them vividly, novelistically, to life. And in the lean lyricism of his prose, at once gothic and reminiscent of noir, he harnesses the novel's greater imaginative freedom to evoke mood. If the abiding mood is one of grimness and depression, the fault lies in the facts of the case, rather than with the architect of its fictionalised form.
Martyn Bedford's latest novel is Black Cat (Penguin, £5.99)