The title of this intriguing book refers to the time and date of the fatal car accident in which Diana, Princess of Wales, her lover Dodi Al Fayed and their driver Henri Paul were killed. It was an event that stunned the world. Ask anyone where they were when they heard the news and they'll be able to tell you -- usually in great detail.
Almost ten years on, the events of that fateful night in the Pont d'Alma underpass in Paris continue to live on through several conspiracy theories, including one that claims Diana was killed as part of a British Secret Service plot to prevent her marrying an Arab. Such theories have not been eased by last year's official Metropolitan Police report which found Diana's death had been a "tragic accident" and not murder. An official inquest, scheduled for earlier this year but now postponed because the woman presiding over it, Lady Butler-Sloss, decided to step down, is equally unlikely to draw a line under Diana's death. Even her two sons, Princes William and Harry, have recently admitted that they believe there will always be an endless fascination with what happened in the Alma tunnel on that night ...
... which is kind of where Irish writer Eoin McNamee steps into the picture. In this cool, calculating novel he fictionalises events leading up to, and including, the accident in Paris. He very cleverly blends fact with fiction and comes up with a totally believable if somewhat alarming story that, at times, had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. At others, I wanted to reach for the tissues.
Despite the roller-coaster of emotions that this book delivers, this is not an easy read. It's written in the cold, emotionally distant manner of a spy thriller, employing language that is clipped, dry and very sparse. (Diana is never referred to by her first name, but always by her last, which makes her sound like an object, and not a person, a difficult concept to get used to, for this reader at least.)
But McNamee has a way with words and is able, through just a handful of phrases, to evoke all manner of dark emotion. He delivers a very nice line in fear and paranoia, and is even able to make an airport car-park seem menacing, as this quote reveals:
He drove into a multi-storey close to the terminal building. He found a space on the third floor. He was alone as he locked the car. It was very quiet and the locking mechanism made a loud noise. Sound travelled strangely in these buildings. Small noises were subject to unusual amplifications. A barrenness of the soul stalked the echoing prefabricated spaces. You felt as if you were in a cathedral of modernist faith. You had the feeling that acolytes of non-belief were scurrying unseen in the pillared gloom.
But this is not a book about Diana. Instead it offers a shadowy glimpse of the world of British espionage, alive with mutual distrust and corruption, so you're never quite sure who is spying on who, and for what reason.
McNamee cleverly holds his cards close to his chest throughout and gives each of the shifty characters that drift in and out of the narrative a good reason to want Diana dead. But who has the most to gain? Is it Harper, the ex-policeman? Or his two old colleagues he brings in to help him carry out surveillance on Diana during her Paris trip? Maybe Henri Paul, the driver and former deputy director of security at The Ritz, is the one to blame? Or what about the paparazzo Andanson who finds himself in the grip of a mysterious cult called the Order of the Solar Temple?
The plot will keep you guessing the whole way, although the climax at the end is almost as murky as the real world with which it purports to cover. Perhaps the final word should go to the author who recently wrote the following about Diana's death and the media's endless fascination with it:
Are we supposed to see the late 20th century archetype of the road accident victim lying on the curbside or the conspiracy victim lost in the murk of political murder? If the narrative tells us about anything, it tells us a little about death. Like all good stories it is in some way about ourselves. If nothing else, its function is to set us poring over the details looking for traces of our own mortality, the graveyard wayposts.