Story behind The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

I don’t go looking for stories. They tend to stand up in front of me and demand to be written. My historical novel Joseph Knight is a case in point. It was based on the true story of how a slave was brought by his master from Jamaica to Scotland in the 1770s, and how he subsequently won his freedom through the law courts. I had studied 18th century Scottish history, yet had never heard of Joseph Knight. It was a chance mention of him by a friend which set me off on the long task of reconstructing his story and uncovering this hidden side of my country’s past.

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It was the same with The Professor of Truth. Although it’s a novel, the book is based on and strongly influenced by the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the town of Lockerbie in December 1988. That terrible event has had huge repercussions in Scotland and across the world, and these are still going on today as the 25th anniversary approaches. It took twelve years to bring the two Libyan men accused of planting the bomb to trial: one of them was acquitted; the other, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2008 Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in August 2009 he was released on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government and allowed home to Libya to die. This decision caused widespread outrage, especially in the USA where so many of the victims of the bombing were from, and the sense of injustice was compounded by the fact that Megrahi survived nearly three years beyond his release, dying in May 2012 shortly after the Libyan revolution. 

But, long before the political storm over his release broke, concerns were being raised that Megrahi, who always maintained his innocence, might himself be the victim of a gross injustice: in short, that he was a scapegoat and had been wrongly convicted in the biggest criminal case in Scottish legal history. Others who had far greater expertise and knowledge than I did were voicing their doubts even during the trial in 2000-01, finding the prosecution’s evidence and the reasoning of the published judgment far from persuasive. Since then, more and more information has come into the public domain which leaves the case against Megrahi in shreds: some evidence was withheld or suppressed by the prosecution or by the police; new evidence has emerged which was not known at the time of the trial; and key witnesses, without whose testimony he could not have been found guilty, have been largely discredited.

I had become increasingly fascinated, disturbed and angered by this long, drawn out saga, not least because, if it was true that Megrahi was innocent, then the real murderers of 270 people remained unidentified and unpunished. Furthermore, if the trial had indeed reached the wrong conclusion, then a massive stain was disfiguring the Scottish justice system. This has important political implications because in September 2014 the Scottish people will vote in a referendum to decide if their country should become independent from the rest of the UK. A fair, open and properly functioning justice system is a prerequisite for a fair, open and properly functioning modern democracy. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, this proposition is still valid, but the prospect of opening a new chapter in our history with questions over the Lockerbie case unresolved is not a good one.

These were some of the motivations behind my writing The Professor of Truth. Why, though, use fiction to explore this complex territory? First, because it is my craft. Second, when real events resist full explanation, as I believe is the case with the Lockerbie bombing, it is sometimes possible for fiction to cast a fresh and useful light on those events. Fiction, as the English novelist Julian Barnes has written, is a way of telling the truth through telling lies. However, you won’t find the names Lockerbie, Libya or Megrahi anywhere in The Professor of Truth. Obviously I have researched the real history very deeply, but the fiction I’ve created is not an attempt to explain what really happened in 1988 and thereafter. If I knew that I wouldn’t have written a novel.

What I have tried to do is explore the issues at the heart of the case: what is truth, what is justice, and how can we recognise them? How are narratives constructed and shaped to serve the interests of those in power, and how do other narratives emerge to challenge them? One of the characteristics of fiction is that it can ask questions without necessarily supplying all the answers. And a novel is a two-way process: it is the reader as well as the writer who must grapple with such questions.

I also wanted to imagine, at a purely human, individual level, what happens to a man who has to contend not only with the loss of his wife and daughter through an act of terrorism but also with a growing belief that the truth has been denied to him. This is the situation of my main character, the story’s narrator, a lecturer in English literature called Alan Tealing. Alan has been on a tortured emotional, psychological and philosophical journey – one littered with obstacles – for 21 years when the book opens. He is visited, in the depths of winter, by a retired American intelligence officer, who brings him a piece of information about a witness in the trial. This information will send Alan on a physical journey from a landscape of ice to one of fire: from snowbound Scotland to Australia in the middle of a heatwave. He goes hoping to find those elusive things, truth and justice, but – as a lawyer colleague warns him – they may not look the way he expects them to if he does find them.

I was very conscious as I wrote the book that I was treading on extremely sensitive ground, because to many of the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing the idea that Megrahi might not have been guilty is deeply upsetting. But I firmly believe that no subject can be considered off-limits to literature or the arts generally. It is true that bad or exploitative art can cause gratuitous offence, but sometimes art must enter controversial territory. Serious writing requires you to make serious decisions about what subjects you address, and then you have to take responsibility for what you write and take the consequences of putting it out there to be read. 

James Robertson
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