Ian Rankin: The Impossible Dead and the origin of an idea

Today is a very special day, and not only because our moms are getting the turkey ready to brine and preparing batches of Chex Mix, but because today Ian Rankin’s newest novel The Impossible Dead  goes on sale.  To celebrate, we’re featuring an excerpt from a special piece that Rankin wrote called “The Death of Willie McCrae” that will whet the appetite of the lucky readers encountering Rankin for the first time, and give all of you who already adore his work insight into his process.

The Death of Willie McRae

By Ian Rankin

On the morning of April 6th 1985, two Australian tourists were driving along a desolate stretch of the A87 in north-west Scotland.  They saw that a maroon-coloured Volvo had come off the road.  There was a man in the driving-seat, alive but in bad shape.  They flagged down another car, which happened to contain a doctor as well as a Scottish National Party councillor.  The councillor recognised the man in the Volvo as Willie McRae, a fervent Nationalist who had run for the SNP leadership in 1979.  An ambulance was summoned and McRae was taken to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, before being transferred to Aberdeen.  It was here that a nurse washed his head-wound and noticed something startling: a bullet-hole.  At this stage, McRae was still alive, but had suffered massive brain damage.  The following day, with his family’s consent, his life-support was turned off.  His car meantime seems to have been removed from the scene of the crash, only to be re-sited by police once they knew about the shooting.  A search was made, and a handgun eventually found some distance away.  The gun, a Smith and Wesson .22 revolver, belonged (albeit illegally) to McRae.  He had taken to carrying it with him.  Why?  Because he was afraid.

No Fatal Accident Inquiry (the Scottish equivalent of an inquest) was ever held.  McRae was deemed to have committed suicide, though not everyone was convinced.  When a journalist got access to the official paperwork in 1995, he noted that the death had been ruled ‘undetermined’ rather than ‘suicide’.

I first came across the case in a non-fiction book called ‘No Final Solution’ published in 1994 by the journalist Douglas Skelton.  It was only in November 2010, however, that I began to pay close attention to the story.  McRae was back in the news, due to calls by SNP councillor John Finnie for the death to be reinvestigated.  In December, there was a follow-up piece in ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper, but by then I had already re-read Skelton’s chapter on Willie McRae.  Skelton mentioned that McRae, a lawyer, had ties to the Scottish National Liberation Army, who throughout the 1980s had waged a campaign against the British state.  They had sent anthrax spores to Porton Down Biological Research Station and letter-bombs to the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, Michael Heseltine, Malcolm Rifkind and even the Queen.  Downing Street and Woolwich Arsenal were targeted, as was Glasgow’s Lord Provost  –  on a day when Princess Diana happened to be visiting.  According to Skelton, McRae was alleged to have been the SNLA’s ‘paymaster’, but was also (so friends said) writing a book on the nuclear industry and had found something important.  McRae’s death occurred only a year after that of anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murell, who had been found in woods near her ransacked home.  McRae had told friends that his home and office had been broken into and paperwork rifled.

The news stories, plus the chapter in Skelton’s book, whetted my appetite and sent me at first to the internet and then to Edinburgh’s Central Library, where I pored over newspapers from April 1985.  In 1985 I had been a student at Edinburgh University, but could recall little of the events I now read about.  Companies were being advised to protect sensitive electronic information from the effects of a nuclear detonation’s Electronic Magnetic Pulse.  Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev were preparing to meet at a ‘Star Wars’ summit.  Bombs were going off in Northern Ireland.  There were protests against acid rain and animal testing.  Teachers were warned not to wear CND badges in the classroom.  20,000 demonstrators had arrived at a proposed Cruise missile base at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire.  There were ten arrests at a demo at Coulport on the Clyde (Coulport being the handling and maintenance depot for the UK’s Polaris fleet of warheads; nuclear warheads were taken by road from there to the Royal Ordnance factory near Reading every month).

By November 1985, many of us would be sitting down to watch the BBC drama ‘Edge of Darkness’, finding that it captured the febrile paranoia of the time.  So too did Peter Wright’s book ‘Spycatcher’, which he tried to publish in 1985 and which was leaking out due to the Scottish media being exempt from the injunction applied in England.

In all this reading, I saw scant mention of Willie McRae.  No journalist, it seemed, wished to linger over a suicide.  McRae was a heavy drinker who had taken his own life.  That was that.  But I could see something emerging from my reading, as is made clear in my notes to myself at the time: ‘Theme, I guess, is that we always live in an age of fear.  In the past we had the coming ice age, CFCs destroying the ozone layer, acid rain, the Cold War and the IRA.  Now we have climate chaos, North Korea, Islamic extremists and the possible collapse of capitalism.’  At around this time, I clipped and kept another news story about an explosion in woodland near Loch Lomond.  The press had speculated that it could be the work of al-Qaeda, testing ‘their deadly homemade bombs’.  I penned a further note to myself: ‘By focussing on a case from the 1980s, I can explore similarities and differences between Scotland then and now.  It becomes a story about where Scotland is and how it got here.’

The SNLA had come into being as a result of the ‘failed’ devolution referendum of 1979.  By 1981 it was collecting anthrax samples from the mainland near the west coast island of Gruinard.  Gruinard features on few maps.  During World War 2, anthrax was seeded there as an experiment, the thinking being that it might prove useful if dropped over Germany.  It was certainly useful to the SNLA.  There were arrests, however, and some SNLA members fled to Ireland.  But the campaign continued.  A letter-bomb was sent to John Nott, then Defence Secretary.  The Conservative and Labour HQs north of the border were damaged by fire, as was an Edinburgh army barracks.  An attempted arson attack on the Glasgow MP Roy Jenkins was botched.  Hoax threats disrupted government and commercial enterprises both in the UK and in the USA.  The SNLA then experimented with Ricin but found it wanting.  As late as 2002 they sent caustic soda (in the guise of massage oil) to Cherie Blair, having previously mailed a letter-bomb to her husband’s constituency home in Sedgefield.  They also carried out cyber-attacks, taking over the Scottish Parliament’s e-mail system in 2001, and they wrote ‘An Assassin’s Guide to St Andrews’, passing it on to the Real IRA in the hope of disrupting  –  fatally disrupting  –  Prince Andrew’s time as a student in the town.

Some of the above information comes from an unpublished book by journalist David Leslie.  The text of the book, ‘Inside a Terrorist Group: the Story of the SNLA’, can be found online.  Since the book was written with the cooperation of SNLA supporters, it is difficult to know how many incidents recorded by Leslie have been exaggerated in the telling.  He does say, however, that the SNLA sees the Scottish National Party as a sham and a hindrance to ‘genuine’ Scottish Nationalism.  The antipathy appears to be mutual, as Alex Salmond, current Scottish First Minister, is quoted as having told another journalist that the SNLA was ‘entirely publicity-driven, the work of one or perhaps two fantasists’.

Nevertheless, the SNLA came into existence when devolution looked a busted flush and SNP support was stuck at around fifteen percent in the polls.  This situation has changed, but it got me wondering: what happened to all those zealots who felt they had to resort to terrorism in order to be heard?  What might they be doing today?  We have seen in Northern Ireland how one-time proponents of domestic terror can be persuaded into the mainstream political process.  I am a writer of fiction, and I saw intriguing themes and plot-lines emerging from my research.

But what of Willie McRae?  The facts are far from lucid, while there are plenty of conflicting theories and allegations.  According to one commentator, no fingerprints were found on the gun  –  perhaps not so surprising, as it was found in running water and had been there for some time.  But had police been tailing him, on one occasion all the way to his weekend retreat?  Was McRae’s briefcase missing from the Volvo, only to be returned to his family some time later?  As a chain-smoker, why were there no cigarettes in the car?  And how could his lucky hundred-pound note (the fee from his first job as a solicitor) have vanished?  Two shots had apparently been fired  –  so where was the second bullet?  Had the car been moved and was it then put back at a slightly different location?  Plenty for conspiracy theorists to chew on.

According to David Leslie’s source, McRae did indeed have close ties to the SNLA.  He had given a couple of members enough cash so that they could evade arrest and prosecution.  These men had almost certainly been under Special Branch surveillance, which means McRae could have been targeted, too.  Leslie’s source states that McRae’s office was the base for the attack on Glasgow’s Lord Provost.  In 2006 a private investigator came forward to say that he had been paid (anonymously) to keep tabs on McRae.  Yet on his last day alive, McRae came out of a Glasgow off-licence, seemingly light of heart.  He was about to drive to his weekend cottage near Dornie in the Highlands, and was carrying two bottles of whisky.  A policeman who knew him stopped on the pavement and made a joke about drink-driving, but then noticed two men watching.  A little later, when McRae drove off, two cars made off after him.

Having seemed happy in himself, and having made appointments for the following week, what could have made him commit suicide?  Well, if he suspected the surveillance, and felt that because he had aided the SNLA he might now face professional ruin and even jail, it could have triggered such thoughts.  Or did he stop on the road to confront his pursuers, firing once at them and another time at his own head?

A Channel 4 documentary about the mystery can be viewed on YouTube.  The internet can be trawled and libraries consulted.  Most probably there will never be closure, except in a speculative work of fiction.  The victim in my new novel ‘The Impossible Dead’ is not Willie McRae, but a married Edinburgh lawyer called Francis Vernal who dies on a lonely road in Fife.  There are ties to a long-disbanded terror group for whom he may have been paymaster.  Vernal does not die on April 7th, but on the 28th, just as many of us were tuned in to Dennis Taylor’s extraordinary World Snooker clash with Steve Davis.  And those mysterious explosions at Loch Lomond: they make it into the novel, too.

Authors are often asked: where do you get your ideas?  Mine come from many sources; some begin life as stories torn from newspapers and kept in my ideas file.  ‘Black and Blue’ features a real-life killer called Bible John who has yet to be identified (the latest name in the frame is that of convicted serial killer Peter Tobin).  ‘The Falls’ began when I saw an exhibit in a museum  –  seventeen tiny coffins found hidden on an Edinburgh hillside in the nineteenth century.  No one could explain them, and that was all the challenge I needed.

We may never know what really happened to Willie McRae, but his life has provided me with the inspiration for a work of fiction looking at the fears we had back then and the new set of threats we seem to face today.

Copyright John Rebus Limited, 2011

To buy The Impossible Dead visit an independent bookseller near you, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon.

Learn more about Ian Rankin by following him on facebook, following him on twitter, or visiting our cousins at Mulholland Books.

One Comment

  1. Douglas Skelton
    Posted December 9, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    My God – Ian Rankin’s read at least two of my books! (I know he looked at the Bible John material in ‘Blood on the Thistle’ when researching ‘Black and Blue’). Seriously, I’m flattered. Glad they were of help.

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