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.
Defending Jacob is a complex and readable crime novel.
Broadly, Andy Barber is the First Assistant DA in a small town in Massachusetts. He has been tasked with leading the investigation into the death of a teenage boy, Ben Rifkin, found stabbed in a local park. As the investigation progresses, the evidence starts to point to Andy's son Jacob. Andy has no doubt of Jacob's innocence and when he is suspended from the DA's office to avoid any conflict of interest, he sets about seeking the best defence that money can buy.
The novel is narrated by Andy in a retrospective fashion, allowing various comments about forthcoming developments. You know the sort of thing: 'little did we know this would be the last time we felt so relaxed', or 'had I known then what I now know, I might have done things differently'. This starts out sounding conversational, but leads to some unnecessary complications as the use of tenses gives away a major part of the denouement. But perhaps William Landay wanted to give this away. After all, it is a novel about people and relationships rather than being a strich whodunnit. The narration is also interspersed with transcript of a court cross-examination of Andy Barber, conducted by his erstwhile protege Neal Logiudice. Part of the intrigue is in working out just what the cross examination is all about - and allows an interesting counterpoint between the account on the record and the account we are reading.
The novel addresses Themes with a capital T. These include honesty, loyalty, conflict between personal and professional interests, delusion, whether ends justify means, nature versus nurture, etc. The list goes on. It is to the author's credit that the many themes feel engaging rather than affected. The narrative style is light enough to bear the heavy messages and the focus on family relationships - especially the triangle between Ben and his parents - grounds any general themes in a very personal context. Aside from this, there is the complexity of the relationships between the schoolkids, played out in both the real world and online. This works well.
Where the novel fails, however, is the ending. There are three or four superfluous chapters that detract rather than add to the authenticity. Ideally, the novel would have stopped in the carpark outside the courtroom, leaving the intelligent reader to fill in gaps or make inferences. Instead, William Landay spells it out to us in idiot-proof language just in case the reader didn't get the twist. It feels so out of step with the rest of the novel which could easily have borne some residual ambiguity.
On balance, this is a good read with plenty of tension and intrigue. It is worth reading, but the let-down at the end seems such a shame.