Northern Irish noir – the crime of Cain and the cult of Calvin
The Patricia Curran case has all the attributes of classic noir, says Eoin McNamee. It is easy to imagine the whole affair transposed from Belfast to 1950s Los Angeles, Black Dahlia territory
Eoin McNamee: “If the heroes of noir know that their fate is sealed but turn and shake a fist it at in the name of humanity, then the villains are guilty of the negative. Like Judge Curran they become the agent of fate, and are capable of giving events a dire twist of their own.” Photograph: Eric Luke
At 2.20am on the morning of November 13th, 1952 the body of 19-year-old Patricia Curran was carried into the family doctor’s surgery. She had been stabbed 37 times. The Curran family were tainted by scandal. Patricia’s father, Judge Lance Curran, was weighed down by gambling debt, her brother Desmond lost in religious zealotry. There were rumours of savage disagreements between Patricia and her mother.
The case became a cause célèbre, and a miscarriage of justice. The young man convicted of the crime had his conviction overturned. The murderer has never been found.
The case has all the attributes of classic noir. There are themes of corruption and deceit. There are political undercurrents. There is the beautiful doomed victim, and the brooding powerful figure of her father the judge.
It is easy to imagine the whole affair transposed to Los Angeles in the fifties, Black Dahlia territory, to haul in WR Burnett or Cain into the ghost written terrain. Set the Curran house, the Glen, in Laurel Canyon, give it to Ross MacDonald and let him track back into the family, the taint of incest hanging in the air. The cast of supporting characters like something from Jim Thompson, awash with bad faith.
Such a crime could have taken place in Foxrock or Glenageary, but it’s hard to see it perceived in the same way. The atmosphere isn’t there. The streets aren’t haunted in the same way, the characters aren’t shadowed. There are provinces of noir in France and England but not in Ireland.
The difference is in the judge. Not in the personality of the man, although there’s plenty to go on there. Curran was a high flyer – Attorney General in his early thirties, he went on to be a privy counsellor. He was reputed to be a heavy gambler. And, if you believe the evidence, he at the least covered up the identity of the murderer of his daughter, and perhaps was responsible for leaving an innocent man in the shadow of the gallows. Leaving all that aside, the judge is the key because of his office. What we understand to be noir has the mark of John Calvin on it. The universe is a cold and pre-determined place. Your fate is decided before you set yourself to defraud your employer or catch a faithless eye across a downtown cocktail bar.
It is the essence of the noir hero to go among the damned, to relate to them, to be one of the damned himself. He sets himself (it is always a man) against the judge, knowing that the verdict has already been reached.
It’s hard to find an Irish murder that you can fit into the noir mould. You have the strange, such as Malcolm McArthur, half existential fiend and half bow-tied nutter. You have the bizarre such as the Green Tureen murder, where Shan Mohanji set about his victim with Fred West-type relish but was seen as a aberration. Brendan O’Donnell. The case of Geoffrey Evans and John Shaw seems to bring a slice of English across the Irish Sea (English being a sub-genre of the main body with a bleak style all of its own). The two petty criminals took a ferry across from England. Murdered Elizabeth Plunkett outside Dublin. At Ballynahinch, near Maam Cross, they kidnapped and abused Mary Duffy over a three-day period before murdering her. Shaw and Evans, brutes that could have been ripped from the Red Riding Quartet, had decided that they would kidnap one girl a week until they were caught.
But their role as agents of a amoral fate was undermined by the ending of their tainted little enterprise. They were caught and brought to Dublin where they were interrogated by Detective Inspector Gerry O’Carroll. O’Carroll wasn’t having any luck in getting admission out of either of them, until, at two o’clock in the morning, O’Carroll brought Burke into a separate room where, in O’Carroll’s description, they prayed together. Following which impromptu novena, Burke confessed and dragged his partner down with him.
It’s strange, but it’s not noir. It seems to happen with Irish murders. A folkloric element leaks into the pure air of noir, the Ireland of rag trees and holy wells and roadside virgin Marys.
The late Gordon Burn, on a visit to Kilkenny a few years ago, told about covering the Fred and Rosemarie West trial, which he later wrote as Happy Like Murderers. He said that he had never believed in the existence of pure evil until he had sat in that courtroom. It shook him to the extent that it finished him with the true crime genre, for want of a better term, for ever.
Maybe noir could better be described as a style, or a way of seeing, for you get the feeling that its conventions buckled in the face of the unrelenting perversions of the Wests.
About 15 years ago I was at a Presbyterian funeral outside Lurgan. It was a freezing Sunday afternoon in November. I watched as the cortege of men (the women stay in the house – the men form the funeral). There were dark clouds over the lough, lines of sleet sweeping in horizontally across the pewter-coloured water as the small cortege made its way to the lough shore.
The graveyard was on a small treeless rise overlooking the lough. A black-robed preacher stood beside the opened grave, silhouetted against the lough sky, his book of laws open in his hand. The cortege halted at the graveside and the coffin was lowered. The preacher opened his book, the wind plucking at his robes, the darkening sky behind him seemed weighed down with judgement. The preacher’s voice was carried towards me on the wind.
“Men, will ye be saved or will ye be damned?”
If the writing is high-flown, it is because the moment seemed self-conscious in its bleak lyricism, the stylised outworking of the Calvinist ideal.
Lancelot Curran was born in Antrim in 1907, one of seven children to Edith and Myles Curran. There have been persistent rumours of Catholicism in Curran’s background and you have to wonder about the father’s name. Myles is an unlikely Christian name for an Irish Protestant – was Lance Curran’s father a Catholic? This fault-line runs throughout the Curran story and echoes some of the primal undercurrents of American noir – the crossing of racial lines, the horror of sexual relations between the races – all the tales of negro coupling with white women leading back not to fears of sexual inadequacy but to the soul-taint of Calvinism, the raising of a fist against what is already written in the book.
(Echoes of lurid accounts of sexual relations between black men and white women are seen in the 17th-century accounts of massacres of Protestants in Ulster, the delicate flesh of Protestant women rent asunder, the pitchforks of fiendish Gaels steeped in their gore.)
In Lance Curran’s world, to be the product of a mixed marriage would have been seen as going against nature, the natural God-given order of things. Defying, in the great sin of noir, your pre-ordained fate. Product of sectarian miscegenation. It’s another noir theme. The lie of origins, of not being who you say you are, of something tainted at the core.
It doesn’t end there. Desmond Curran, Patricia’s brother, was 26 at the time of the murder. He was a junior barrister at the Belfast bar, full-time lawyer and part-time proselytiser for the Moral Rearmament campaign founded by Frank Buchman. A forerunner of AA, Moral Rearmament was vehement to the point of cultishness and souls were pursued with “loving relentlessness”. Following the murder, Desmond Curran left the bar and studied to become a Catholic priest. He was ordained in Rome in 1960 (the ceremony attended by his father) and still serves in a township parish in South Africa, where he was known for his courage in resisting apartheid. He acquired an Xhosa nickname in these years – Isibane. The Lamp.
What was Lance Curran doing at his renegade son’s ordination in Rome? He had been an Orangeman all his life, a bigot to the core. Or was that fake too? Had he hearkened to the Roman whore, abandoned the delicate milk-white flesh of the Protestant womenfolk to their fate?
Lance Curran knew the rules of the toxic Ulster game and was well able to play them. Attorney-General at 36, High Court judge, clambering relentlessly and ruthlessly towards the ermine collar that was eventually placed around his neck in the House of Lords. There were rumours about his background – no-one seemed to know where he had come from. The lack of detail implying that Lance had been busy erasing the traces of his passage.
There’s a made-up feel to the Currans, as if they’d been sprung on the world from a lurid dime-store fiction. Doris Curran, Patricia’s mother, was consigned to a mental hospital after her daughter’s murder and remained there to her death. For want of a better candidate, the finger of suspicion for her daughter’s murder has been pointed at her. And there is a detail of Doris Curran’s life which adds substance of a sort to the claim that she was involved, or at least deepens the corpse-murk around the killing of Patricia Curran. Doris Curran had been brought up in Broadmoor Prison for the Criminally Insane.
It’s hard to bring up the fact without peppering the page with gothic imagery, turrets emerging out of swirling moorland fogs and the like. Doris Curran’s father was the Superintendent of the hospital, and you’d like to think she was raised well away from the inmates, the fiendish and the damned. But there’s a symmetry in her passage from the bedlam of Broadmoor through the murder of a daughter to the silence of a Belfast mental hospital, the symmetry of a fiction where you feel that the author is pushing it a bit, stretching the synchronicity.
There aren’t many photographs of Lance Curran. One taken at his elevation to the bench shows a cold-eyed man, high cheek-boned with a long nose. It’s the mouth that stands out, the same mouth as his daughter Patricia, turned down at the corners. In Patricia the mouth is sulky and sensuous, but her father’s mouth shows hauteur and petulance.
The other photograph shows Judge Curran inspecting a guard of honour of the Royal Sussex regiment outside the opening of the Downpatrick Assize in 1961. A hanging assize.
On the morning of Sunday, January 29th, 1961, a young Newry woman, Pearl Gamble, was found stripped and murdered half a mile away from her house at Damolly. She had been beaten, strangled and stabbed, her clothing scattered in the approaches to the stubble field where she had been found. The police focused their attention on a 26-year-old local man, Robert McGladdery, who had danced with the dead girl at a hop in a Newry Orange Hall the previous night. According to McGladdery’s solicitor, at the time the RUC were convinced, on thin enough evidence, that they had their man and did not investigate any other possibility. When the dust settled and McGladdery was charged, it emerged that Judge Lancelot Curran was to sit on the bench at his trial for capital murder.
If it weren’t for the McGladdery case, it might be possible to see Lance Curran as a clever opportunist who played a bad hand well. An ermined chancer, who, when his mad wife allegedly murdered his daughter, steered his family out of trouble with an amoral deftness, and resumed his career as before, leaving a casualty or two behind admittedly, but the likes of Iain Hay Gordon should have known the rules of the game before they sat down at Lance Curran’s table.
The McGladdery case casts another light on Lance Curran. For a start, a man whose 19-year-old daughter has been murdered in a crime with sexual overtones should never have offered to, or been permitted to, sit in judgement over the trial of a man accused in the sex murder of another 19-year-old girl nine years later. The Patricia Curran case could not have failed to have been in the mind of the jury when Lance Curran took the bench.
I’d had a book on the McGladdery case in mind for 20 years and had been working on it for over a year and still hadn’t got to the core of it. I went back to the source material, started reading through the case again in the newspaper archive of the Belfast Telegraph in the Central Library. 1961. Year of Yuri Gagarin and the Bikini Atoll. I realised that I hadn’t read Judge Curran’s charge to the jury all the way through, so I went to the case report and started to read.
The evidence against McGladdery was all circumstantial and he denied the charge vehemently. The case hinged on two issues. Had McGladdery lied about what he had been wearing that night (a short fawn overcoat, a light-coloured suit later found concealed)? And had he been abducted and aggressively interrogated in relays by Newry police for 14 hours, as he had claimed? (If he had, then the police would have been shown to be liars.)
You read through the charge to the jury. It is a reasonable summary of the evidence, clear, unambiguous and incidentally closing off all avenues of appeal on the grounds of misdirection if McGladdery was found guilty. Then, when you get to the final page, you feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
“Thirteen witnesses said that McGladdery wore a light blue suit. You will be very slow to say they were all mistaken.
“Before you would agree there is any knavery on the part of the police force you will want strong evidence and not merely the say-so of a man charged by this court.”
In cop argot, it’s a steer to the jury, about as clear as you’re likely to get. Don’t believe this man. Curran might as well have winked at them while he was at it. In a case which raised many complex issues and in which the accused, in jeopardy for his life and knowing that clemency might lie in a guilty plea, protested his innocence to the end, the jury were out for 40 minutes, enough time for a cup of tea and a smoke, before they came back with a guilty verdict. Robert McGladdery was hanged on December 20th, 1961.
(McGladdery’s QC Jimmy Brown went to his grave believing his client to be innocent. When I brought this up with a member of the current Belfast bar he told me that the word in the bar library was that Brown had become “obsessed” with the McGladdery case. When I asked another barrister about the peculiar legal shenanigans that went on around Iain Hay Gordon’s trial for the murder of Patricia Curran, I was told of the rumour that Gordon (later proved innocent) had “confessed” to his first legal team that he had murdered her, prompting their refusal to represent him. The lawyers burying their own sins under self-serving innuendo. The info on Jimmy Brown came from David Torrans from No Alibis in Belfast. Shotgun synchronicities going on.)
It’s easy to get caught up in the faux celluloid allure of the Currans, the slightly over-written feel of the whole story, the lurid asides of Broadmoor and Isibane, the hints of white mischief in provincial outposts. But it’s the Gordon Burn moment in the Central Library that catches you out and fixes the whole affair. The newspaper archive. The dusty back-office feel to the place, the smell of warm plastic and the clattery edge-of-reason whirr from the microfiche machines. You can hear the malice in Curran’s voice as you turn the pages, the rendering of himself as agent of fate. The matter of the soul is weighed and judgement is meted. Damnation dealt to the condemned man in the dock. There’s a shift in the Calvinist position. Not only is the universe indifferent. It is weighted against you. There is a hand on the scales.
Backtrack to the night of November 13th, 1952. Patricia Curran steps off the Whiteabbey bus and disappears into the dark avenue leading to the Glen. Backtrack to the independent nature, the reputed promiscuity. In the single photograph of Patricia used repeatedly through the years she is wearing pearls and a formal cowl-neck dress. The photograph is badly lit. Her cheeks are slightly dimpled and the mouth down-turned at the corners, but it is the eyes that hold you. Her face is dominated by the shadow of them. You are drawn to their mesmeric void. She is the judge’s daughter. She is the classic noir heroine. She knows how it works. Patricia knows that once the judge fixes his eye on you the game is up. You can see it in the mouth, the wry downturn. It is what is expected of her, and she shares it with all the other girls trading come-hithers in on-the-slide cocktail bars. The good-time girls and the other side of the tracks girls, the gone to the bad and the born to be bad. You only get one chance so you’d better take it. Besides, the judge has you tried and condemned before you ever put yourself in the way of temptation.
If the rumours are to be believed (and there’s no proof of it one way or another) Patricia Curran was stabbed to death by her mother, and then her father orchestrated a cover-up of the murder. You’d wonder that a mother could stab a daughter 37 times, but a paranoid schizophrenic would be capable of it, the symptoms reading like a lunatic’s charter – delusions of persecution, of exalted birth or special mission, bodily changes, hallucinatory voices that threaten or give commands, auditory hallucinations. Hallucinations of smell or taste or of sexual or other bodily sensations. Who did Doris Curran think she was? Who did she think Patricia was?
And you’d wonder that a father could cover it up. Unless he believed his own fate sealed and then a bit. If the heroes of noir know that their fate is sealed but turn and shake a fist it at in the name of humanity, then the villains are guilty of the negative. Like Judge Curran they become the agent of fate, and are capable of giving events a dire twist of their own. The French talk about noir et maudit. Dark and accursed. A girl’s voice calls out in the provincial night. McGladdery proclaims his innocence then submits to his fate. There’s always wriggle room on the other side of the house, the chance of redemption, the fat being pulled from the fire, but once the judge’s gavel falls, hope is abandoned.
Eoin McNamee was born in Kilkeel, Co Down in 1961. His novels include Resurrection Man, The Blue Tango and Orchid Blue. Blue is the Night, the final part of the Blue trilogy, is the current Irish Times Book Club choice. It recently won the €15,000 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award at Listowel Writers’ Week.
This essay was first published in Down These Green Streets, Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century, edited by Declan Burke (Liberties Press, €19.99)
Next week: An interview with Eoin McNamee