A long time ago, Eoin McNamee wrote a novel called The Blue Tango about the true unsolved murder of a Judge Lance Curran's daughter Patricia in 1952. The novel did not offer up any answers, but did nudge readers in various directions. There wasn't anything at the time to indicate a trilogy in the making.
We met Judge Curran again in McNamee's 2010 Orchid Blue. Here, he was presiding at the 1962 murder trial of Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland. It offered a greater insight into the life and mind of Lance Curran.
Now, with Blue Is The Night, we find the two previous novels joined by a third that is part new case - the murder of Mary McGowan and trial of Robert Taylor, and partly a revisiting of Patricia Curran's murder with the occasional mention of McGladdery thrown in for good measure. It is a strange novel that doesn't quite fit within conventions. Perhaps it is the power of suggestion with a quote from David Peace on the front cover, but it is not unlike Peace's Nineteen Eighty-Three in revisiting past novels.
Again, as with The Blue Tango and Orchid Blue, this instalment doesn't really answer the unknowable questions. Instead, it focuses on the sleaze and decay that was eating the heart out of Ulster society in the days before The Troubles. There was a constant threat of violence and breakdown of civil order. There was an understanding that ends justified means, and if a guilty man walking free was the price to be paid for civil order then it was a price worth paying (compare and contrast with guilty men being released from jail under the Good Friday Agreement, again to secure civil order in Northern Ireland). Now, of course Eoin McNamee is not a neutral observer. As an Ulster Catholic, he is bound to have his own perspective and will have his own points to make. But, even accepting that there may be two sides to a story, McNamee presents his story well. There are enough discontinuities and nuances to add plausibility. There are lines to read between. There are nudges and winks.
And at the heart of it all, we have Lance Curran. Eoin McNamee has a fascination with players who step outside their roles. Justice Curran is such a man - on the one hand, a unionist Member of Parliament and Attorney General; a successful lawyer and member of the establishment, but on the other hand he is willing to prosecute a Protestant for the murder of a Catholic; he is a problem gambler; he has a "fast" daughter, a son who is training for the priesthood and a wife who grew up in Broadmoor. He comes across as reckless, lacking strategy and living for kicks. He is a man who would play with law and order - play with people's lives - just as he would play with dice. He has ambition, but no direction.
Curran has a number of foils, particularly his election agent Harry Ferguson with whom he seems to have a relationship of mutual contempt. But also there is his dysfunctional family and a revolving cast of the great and the good. We see government as being tight and shady, double-faced.
The murder, the trial and Robert Taylor are well drawn. McNamee manages to wring tension from the courtroom drama even though Taylor's guilt is not in doubt and the outcome (by inference) is known. If there is a gripe, it is that the dialogue scenes from the 1960s between Harry Ferguson and Curran's estranged wife Doris are hard to follow and seem to obscure rather than illuminate. Also, the revisiting of Patricia Curran's murder serves to reopen The Blue Tango and suggest that not all the relevant material had been presented to the reader at the time. That grates a bit.
But, overall, I have to agree with David Peace that this is a genuine, original masterpiece.
Post Originally Made 22nd October 2006
This is a debut novel for Young Adults, from an accomplished Irish adult novellist.
The novel stars Owen (a play on the pronunciation of Eoin, perhaps?), an ordinary boy from an ordinary town. One day, Owen witnesses - although he doesn't realise or understand it - the starting of the Puissance and his life changes. A whole community awakens from within the Old Workhouse, and a centuries old war is restarted between the Resistors and the Harsh.
Soon it becomes apparent that time has been damaged, and this is an alternative reality. Owen has an important role to play to restore life, one that he has inherited from his Father. Through trying to save the Resistors, and ultimately the world, Owen learns more about his own history and his own strengths.
The novel is action-packed, and there is plenty to get your teeth into. However, McNamee works too hard to explain the complications of time-travel and the numerous gadgets invented by the loveable Dr Diamond. Unfortunately, as a result at no point does the scenario seem entirely convincing. The ending is weak, seeming a little too convenient and tidy.
This said, there are lots of great ideas here that could have been developed further and a good backstory. Junior fans of sci-fi will enjoy it.
This review was originally written for the now defunct Children's Books UK.
“We’ve got spooks and ghouls and freaks and fools at Rentaghost”
And there are even more of them in 12:23. 12:23 tells the story of events in Paris leading up to the car crash that killed Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. Paris is full of spooks, some working freelance, some working for the British, some for the French, and some working for powers unseen. McNamee evokes an atmosphere in which something is going to happen. An atmosphere in which Dodi and Diana are following a course of action that simply can’t be sustained; one that will inevitably lead to calamity before terribly much longer.
And although Dodi and Diana seem to be at the centre of the piece, they are hardly seen, They are playing a part that seems scripted, whilst the free choice is left to the various spooks, to Henri Paul (the head of Ritz security), and to the paparazzi. The narrative takes various viewpoints, and Diana’s is seldom shown. What we do see shows a woman swho is resentful at the lack of control; at being herded through service corridors as she is bundled from venue to venue. We see a character who has not thought deeply about the unsustainable position she has created; about the conflict between the political stances she has taken and those with whom she is associating. She doesn’t seem to have given even a cursory thought to the establishment that her eldest son is destined to lead.
Much of the narrative follows Harper, an ex-RUC Special Branch man who has been hired by Bennett, ex MI5, who has been hired by Max LaFontaine, to watch Henri Paul. Harper represents the seamy underbelly of security where much of the work is dull, where remits are unclear, and where the highest bidder wins. Harper is the 1990s version of a cold war spy – the battle for which he was trained is entering the end game without him, he is unloved, but still has his basic skills at hand. He has been rotting on a Belfast building site and jumps as the chance to get back involved, even with a mundane watching brief and on behalf of an unknown principal.
After a game of cat and mouse across the city in which it becomes clear that something is going pretty wrong, the inevitable crash happens. We can see it coming as the various narratives are headed with the date and time, and it draws inexorably closer to the 12:23 of the front cover. As the spooks stand in the tunnel assessing the situation, we have the ghouls – the paparazzi and other tourists stopping to get a good look at the action. They snap away at the injured couple, who are part of some macabre freak show. The chaos of the scene is well constructed, but I’m not sure the spooks would have felt like lingering on the scene.
And as the dust settles on the evening, we start to see just who was doing what in Paris that summer. We find out who the winner was, and discover who have been played for fools.
This is an unusual departure for Eoin McNamee. He has established a reputation for historical thrillers in which much of the action, and definitely the ending, remain shrouded in mystery. And writing as John Creed, he writes fictitious situations that are resolved with clarity. But this is the first histiorical novel in which the actions are largely unambiguous. This is problematic. McNamee appears to be holding up the conspiracy theory of Diana’s death as a fact. Whilst much of the plot may be technically credible on the page, it is difficult to believe that it is what actually happened in reality. This confusion has an unfortunate effect of undermining the credibility of other McNamee works.
The writing, though, is superb. McNamee uses some brilliant turns of phrase to crank up the atmosphere. The detailing is there; the backstories; the descriptions; the intrigue and the pacing – all done to perfection. But one wonders whether the air would really have been quite so pregnant leading up to the crash, or whether that is a creation with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps it depends upon whether you actually believe any of the conspiracy theories.
It’s an odd work, especially only 10 years after the events it describes. It’s somewhere between and four and a five star rating, but seeing as it’s Christmas…
Orchid Blue is ostensibly a fictionalization of the Pearl Gamble murder and subsequent conviction of Robert McGladdery. It is based on a TV programme - The Last Man Hanging, broadcast in 2008.
From the opening pages, McNamee tries to create a sense of the documentary; his tone is deadpan reportage looking back. In later chapters, he intersperses contemporaneous action with narrative commentary before bringing it together at the end with more reportage. McNamee even quotes Robert McCartney who apparently watched the trial from the public gallery.
McNamee's thesis was that McGladdery was innocent, the judge was pursuing a personal agenda, and the Newry Police were lazy and incompetent. In particular, Judge Lance Curran, star of McNamee's The Blue Tango, was trying to atone in some way for his cover-up of his daughter's murder. And whilst The Blue Tango pulled its punches and left the reader wondering, Orchid Blue lacks that subtlety. McNamee's thesis is clear from the opening pages and even seeks to resolve the lingering ambiguity of the Curran case.
The trouble is, not everyone can be innocent. It is fashionable to look at old cases, especially capital cases, and look for the truth after all these years. However, it is often no more than conjecture; the placing of unquestioning credence on the defendant's alibi and the convenient suppression of facts to suit the conclusion. But dressed up in a lengthy novel, especially one topped and tailed with learned comment, it starts to blur the line between fact and fiction. It is possible that McNamee doesn't intend his work to be taken quite so seriously. Perhaps the narrator is
One has to wonder at McNamee's intention. Is he speaking from the heart, uncovering and exposing miscarriages of justice. Or is he presenting a fictionalised David Jessel-like character who is simply lending importance to the fiction? If the latter, then whi pick real cases? But if the former, then why devalue the currency with 12:23, the serious fictionalisation of Mohammed Fayed's conspiracy theory about the death of Diana and Dodi?
As for the text, McNamee does a good job in portraying a grim and damp Newry - the urban hub for South Armagh. There is an underlying malaise that would make Newry one of the towns worst affected by sectarian violence during the Troubles. And it is hard to read Orchid Blue without having a sense of what lies in store for the town. A dead body at Damolly Cross might have caused a scandal in 1961 but come 1971 it would barely raise an eyebrow. Again, one is left to wonder whether McNamee is accurately portraying the mood of the time or whether he is using more recent knowledge to create a plausible past.
The story lacks credibility. It is inconceivable that the Belfast Inspector of Constabulary, Robert McCrink, would start re-investigating the Patricia Curran murder - especially since the scenes and witnesses were in Whiteabbey and Antrim when McCrink was supposed to be outposed in Newry. It is inconceivable that McCrink would attempt to sabotage the trial. It is inconceivable that a case would come to trial based on evidence as flimsy as McNamee suggests it was.
The reality, one suspects, was more prosaic. Sometimes the convicted man really is guilty.