Turning true crime into true blue fiction
Eoin McNamee’s ‘blue’ novels explore Northern Ireland before the Troubles
Poetic beauty: Eoin McNamee aims not to provide glib answers but to make us re-evaluate our relationship with the act of storytelling. Photograph: Sarah Lee
‘Every writer sets their own weather,” says Eoin McNamee. If that’s the case, his is a literary landscape of storm and calamity; of real-life murders and miscarriages of justice, lit by flashes of poetic beauty.
McNamee’s new novel, Blue Is The Night , revisits a 1949 murder trial in Belfast, presided over by the then attorney general, Lance Curran. Although it is a page-turner in its own right, the book also sits as the third in McNamee’s “blue” trilogy. The Blue Tango explores the 1952 murder of Lance Curran’s teenage daughter Patricia, while Orchid Blue investigates another killing – in a dancehall in Newry in 1961 – and another trial, with Patricia’s father – now Judge Curran – pronouncing the death sentence on Robert McGladdery, the last man to be hanged in the North.
McNamee says he didn’t set out with the intention of writing a trilogy. “I hadn’t realised that Judge Curran had been on the McGladdery case, so that led on to Orchid Blue ,” he says. “I hadn’t intended to write Blue Is The Night , either. But I was looking at Patricia’s mother, Doris, and happened to come across the fact that she had been brought up in Broadmoor Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where her father was superintendent. So I started reading around that, and came across Thomas Cutbush.”
Jack the Ripper
A Jack the Ripper suspect who was diagnosed as insane in 1891, Cutbush was never convicted of any crime. McNamee found a document that described him as five feet nine with brown hair and a chipped tooth. “And then, at the very end,” says McNamee, “it said: ‘Eyes dark blue – very sharp’. That brought Cutbush alive for me – and a whole world alive for Doris.”
McNamee evokes Northern Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s with skill, precision and a kind of dreamy glamour. The glamour carries more than hint of decay – a dichotomy epitomised, for the author, by a photograph of his parents taken at the Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle. “My father is wearing evening dress. Cigarette in one hand, whisky and soda on the table. My mother has her hair up in a French bun and she’s wearing a dress that she made herself from a Vogue pattern. They look sophisticated and elegant. Part of you wonders, ‘Who did they think they were?’ And then you realise that they thought they were progressive people in a society which was reforming itself. They had no inkling of the catastrophe coming down the road which was to be the North.”
With their murder mysteries, courtroom scenes and historical references, McNamee’s novels might lead the unwary to place them on the “true crime” shelf. As a writer, however, he aims not to provide glib answers but to make us re-evaluate our relationship not just with institutions and society, but with the act of storytelling itself.
“There’s a sense from publishers and publicity people that I’ve been booted out of the literary drawingroom into the alley – and I kind of like it out there,” he says. “You follow the world you’re writing about and where it leads you. I’ve realised more and more that, as a writer, you learn a certain amount of technique. But what it’s really about is learning how to see properly. If you describe what you see in front of you, that gives your words an authority.”
If you think of his novels as being primarily hard-nosed and political, however, you’re missing the point. “ Blue Is The Night is a book of longing and yearning, of ruined loves,” he says. At its core are the Curran women: mother Doris, who ended her days in a psychiatric hospital, and daughter Patricia, who haunts this book as she haunted the earlier two.
“I started off writing The Blue Tango to find out who killed Patricia Curran, only to find out that it was about who was Patricia Curran. There’s this miasma of promiscuity that descended around her following her murder; the implication that somehow she was not as pure as she might have been. Which is simply not true. But she was very spirited and interesting, almost a proto-feminist.” Could the trilogy, then, become four? “Well, I’ve finished with the Currans,” he says. “But whether they’ve finished with me, I don’t know. Patricia in particular.”
It’s not that McNamee doesn’t have other things to write about. In The Ultras , he ventures into the murky world of spies. Resurrection Man is a portrait of a sectarian serial killer. He also writes short stories and screenplays, and crime novels under the name John Creed. He’s “fiddling around with the idea of doing an Alex Higgins book”.
Like the North itself, however, McNamee is moving on. A year or so ago he visited his home town of Kilkeel, Co Down. “It was always a gritty Northern fishing town, but latterly there are a lot of Latvians and Poles and Filipinos working the fishing boats. We were down one evening with the kids watching the boats coming in. And this boat came around the pier head. On deck were about five Somali guys in yellow oilskins. They were singing and dancing and waving at all the people on the pier. It felt as if a piece had broken off somebody else’s imagination and come floating round . . .”
There might just be a novel on board that boat, too. You never know.
Blue Is The Night is published by Faber & Faber