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In 1984, Margaret Thatcher was nearly assassinated — a new book asks, what if?

In a new book called "There Will Be Fire," Irish journalist Rory Carroll investigates the IRA plot to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, a plot that almost succeeded and thus almost changed the course of history.



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This is FRESH AIR. In a new book called "There Will Be Fire," Irish journalist Rory Carroll investigates the IRA plot to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, a plot that almost succeeded and thus almost changed the course of history. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: What if? That's the classic alternate history question that drives "There Will Be Fire," an engrossing work of nonfiction by journalist Rory Carroll, who's the Ireland correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. What if, Carroll asks, Thatcher's movements had been different during two crucial minutes in the small hours of October 12, 1984? What if she had lingered in the bathroom of her suite, which was several floors directly under a bomb the IRA had planted in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England? What if that bomb, which did indeed explode and kill and grievously wounded dozens of people, had claimed Thatcher among its fatalities?

Clearly, the publication of "There Will Be Fire" has been timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary this month of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace, however uneasy, to Northern Ireland. Carroll says that if Thatcher had been killed by the IRA, that peace accord might very well not have happened. If comparisons to a political thriller like Frederick Forsyth's "The Day Of The Jackal" are inevitable, so too is a comparison to Patrick Radden Keefe's spectacular 2019 book "Say Nothing" about the IRA abduction and disappearance of a mother of 10 in 1972.

Both writers focus on discrete acts of violence as an entryway into a more expansive account of The Troubles, Northern Ireland's bloody struggle for self-determination. Keefe is a flat-out master storyteller. His book's title, "Say Nothing," is from a poem by Seamus Heaney, and Keefe's own investigative writing has a rare poetical resonance to it. Carroll's writing style is more methodical, diligently layering detail upon detail, much in the manner of one of the Scotland Yard investigators he profiles here, a fingerprint expert named David Tadd. In the era before DNA testing, Tadd and his team routinely sifted through bomb blasts and other crime scenes for up to 15 hours at a time, trying, as Carroll says, to match a smudge of a thumb to a name in Scotland Yard's vast archive of terrorist suspect files. Tadd and his team pretty much did just that - cracking the identity of Thatcher's would-be assassin, all without the aid of computers.

The centerpiece tale here of Thatcher's near assassination needs little embellishment to be riveting. In the wake of its successful assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979 and subsequent bombings, like that of Harrods department store in 1983, which brought the war to England, the IRA resolved to assassinate the sitting prime minister, Margaret Thatcher - in their eyes, the most reviled British leader since Cromwell. The occasion would be the Conservative Party Congress, scheduled for October 1984 at the seaside resort of Brighton, where Thatcher and her cabinet would be staying at the Grand Hotel, an imposing Victorian structure.

Nearly a month earlier, Patrick Magee, an IRA bomb expert - nicknamed the Chancer, in recognition of the risks he took - checked in and spent three days in Room 629 building a bomb. He hid it in a detachable panel under the bathtub and set the timer to go off in 24 days, six hours and 36 minutes. The explosion itself was just the spark, Carroll writes. (Reading) The real weapon would be the hotel itself. Its bricks, stone, marble and glass unloosened from 120 years of compact solidity and turned into a great, sweeping avalanche.

When the bomb went off, one of the hotel's rooftop chimneys, acting like a monstrous guillotine as it sliced its way through to the ground floor, veered sideways. That meant it shattered not Thatcher's bedroom, but her bathroom suite, which the night-owl prime minister had left just two minutes earlier. The next morning, amidst the carnage, the Iron Lady gave her conference speech as planned. As Carroll comments, even those in Britain who loathed her were awed.

In his copious acknowledgments, Carroll cites interviews with retired police officers, soldiers, politicians and former IRA members, including Patrick Magee, whom he says was guarded but gracious. Magee's capture, which is another breathless story here, resulted in a sentence of eight life terms. He served 14 years before he was released under conditions of the Good Friday Agreement, the very same agreement Thatcher's assassination might have imperiled. Carroll, in his understated manner, lets that irony of history speak for itself.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "There Will Be Fire" by Rory Carroll. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - shipwreck, mutiny and murder. Our guest will be bestselling author David Grann. His new nonfiction book investigates the crash of an 18th century British warship. The survivors sailed thousands of miles to safety on a makeshift boat. They later faced charges of mutiny. Grann also wrote "Killers Of The Flower Moon" and "The Lost City Of Z." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MYRA MELFORD'S "PARK MECHANICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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