AWARD-WINNING author James Robertson is courting controversy after basing his next novel on the events surrounding the Lockerbie terrorist bombing.
Robertson, recently hailed as “Scotland’s greatest living writer” by First Minister Alex Salmond, has been a constant supporter of the campaign to clear the name of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie murders, but who was released from jail in Scotland on compassionate grounds before his death earlier this year. Robertson has also used high-profile lectures to cast doubt on Megrahi’s conviction.
Now his latest novel, The Professor of Truth, due to be published in June and billed as being “inspired by the Lockerbie bombing”, tells the story of a university lecturer whose wife and daughter are killed in the terrorist bombing of a plane over Scotland 21 years earlier.
In an echo of the story of Dr Jim Swire, the Worcestershire GP whose daughter died in the real bombing, the academic is sure that the man convicted of the multiple murders was not responsible and that he has been deprived of justice.
The plot may revive accusations that Robertson uses his writing to provide “alternative” versions of history. One critic, Ian Smart, former head of the Law Society in Scotland, wrote that the author’s previous prize-winning novel, And The Land Lay Still, which charted the rise of Scottish nationalism, “was like reading one of those ‘alternative history’ books set in a world where the USA had lost the War of Independence or Hitler had been successful at Stalingrad”.
Robertson has also been criticised by US relatives of Lockerbie victims as being part of a “cottage industry of deniers” and of being a cheerleader for Megrahi. Frank Duggan, president of the US-based support group Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 said: “If the book is inspired by the Lockerbie bombing and the author believes Megrahi was not guilty despite what was found by your courts, I am afraid it will not rise to the top of my reading list.
“I know there is now a cottage industry of deniers, from books to films to stage productions, shilling [working on behalf of] for Megrahi. I guess James Robertson takes the position that it was not Megrahi, but it was some other Libyans who were guilty of these unspeakable murders. It is disheartening that Mr Robertson can give speeches to sold out audiences based on his version of the facts.”
Megrahi became the only man convicted of the bombing which killed 270 people in the air and on the ground in southern Scotland in 1988. Imprisoned in Scotland in 2001, his controversial release – after being diagnosed as suffering from terminal prostate cancer – came in 2009 before a second appeal on the safety of his conviction by three Scottish judges could be heard.
Robertson could not be contacted about his novel, but he has spoken several times previously about his belief that Megrahi was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
In 2010, he said he was taking a stand on the issue because he feared that when Megrahi died, the truth would never be told.
“It is crucial for the relatives because they feel, 22 years after the event, that they still don’t know what happened and who was responsible,” he said. “There is also a stain on the Scottish justice system, as this does not look or feel right. As long as the answers are not addressed this stain will not be removed.”
Then in 2011, addressing the Edinburgh Book Festival in a speech entitled “The Lockerbie Affair and Scottish Society”, he outlined six key reasons that pointed to Megrahi’s innocence saying: “The more I look, the more I am forced to the conclusion that if there is a conspiracy around Lockerbie, it is not one concocted by those who doubt the guilt of Mr Megrahi, but a conspiracy of silence in which the US, UK and Scottish governments are all, though not from shared motives, implicated.”
He also wrote to Salmond to express support for the calls of the UK relatives for a full and independent inquiry. He said he was disappointed to receive the standard response that the Scottish Government had no reason to doubt the safety of Megrahi’s conviction.
Swire, whose 23-year-old daughter Flora was killed on Pan Am Flight 103, is also convinced that Megrahi was innocent of the murders. Last January, he travelled to Tripoli to meet and say goodbye to Megrahi, and was “entirely satisfied” he was not to blame for the bombing.
Swire said he had already read Robertson’s latest work. “I think the book is, as is usual with James Robertson’s work, an excellent read, and I have absolutely no problem with it whatsoever and I’ve told him that. I feel entirely comfortable with the book.”
He added that parts of Robertson’s novel reminded him of the immediate aftermath of the bombing. “The first half was so close to the events that followed the Lockerbie disaster,” he said. “The second part is pure fiction, but perfectly interesting fiction to read.”
Professor of Truth will be published by Penguin and the promotional material reads: “Twenty-one years after his wife and daughter were murdered in the bombing of a plane over Scotland, Alan Tealing, a university lecturer, still does not know the truth of what really happened on that terrible night. Obsessed by the details of what he has come to call ‘The Case’, he is sure that the man convicted of the atrocity was not responsible, and that he himself has thus been deprived not only of justice but also of any chance of escape from his enduring grief.
“When an American intelligence officer, apparently terminally ill and determined to settle his own accounts before death, arrives on his doorstep with information about a key witness in the trial, a fateful sequence of events is set in motion.
“Alan decides that he must travel to Australia to confront this witness, whose evidence he has always disbelieved, in the hope that this might at last be the breakthrough for which he has waited so long.”