Deirdre OBrien, Singing the Blues, interview-article with Eoin McNamee, in Verbal Magazine (9 April 2011)
Judhe Curran, the father of Patricia, is presiding over the trial of the alleged murderer of Pearl Gamble, nine years after the death of his daughter. Set in Newry in 1961, the novel is another fact-based fiction from McNamee, this time on the startling events that led to the final hanging in Northern Ireland.
On the morning of January 29th, 1961, the body of Pearl Gamble, a local shop assistant, was discovered after attending a dance at the Orange Hall in Newry the previous night. A local man named Robert McGladdery quickly became the prime suspect. Having been seen dancing with the victim on the night of the murder and acting suspiciously during the days that followed. McGladdery is tried, found guilty and hanged based on circumstantial evidence and, ever since then, a shadow of doubt has lain over the case and the involvement of Judge Curran in the proceedings. Although not strictly a sequel to The Blue Tango, the novel returns to look at the fallout from the case of Patricia Curran and we find that the man found guilty (but insane) of her murder was freed five years after his incarceration. Judge Curran seems, in some respects, to be looking for someone to hang for his own daughters death.
When I ask McNamee had he intended to return to that place in time and feature a similar case with some similar characters when he originally wrote The Blue Tango he replies: Not really. It took a long time to take on board the relationship between the two cases - in particular the fact that the father of the murdered girl in The Blue Tango, Lord Justice Curran, was to stand in judgement on McGladdery for the murder of another nineteen-year-old girl nine years later.
Considering McNamee was born in Newry itself the same year as the murder, this is a story he grew up knowing about. I was born a few hundred yards from the Orange Hall featured in Orchid Blue - ten months after the murder, and six weeks before McGladdery was hanged in Crumlin Road. Every provincial town has its ghosts, and McGladdery and Pearl gradually became mine, he says.
McNamee found … the cast of characters, the vivid atmospheres, the town, the sense of an innocent victim and a complex, tainted justice compelling enough to return to 1960s Newry and the Pearl Gamble trial and Orchid Blue is a poetic accompaniment, rather than sequel, to The Blue Tango. Seen through the eyes of one of the few fictional characters in the novel, Detective Eddie McCrink, McNamee uses the one protesting voice to what is unfolding to give a different, more critical point of view. When I ask if McCrink stands as a literary tool for the author to get his opinion about what happened through, his answer is in the positive. Exactly. Eddie McCrink is a fictitious character, a returned detective given a role in the case, and his is the outsiders view of it.
The Newry described in the book is a bleak town with many shady characters and its own law for matters such as this. However McNamee isnt worried about criticism from inhabitants of Newry about his depiction of it. If you had to answer to the inhabitants of any particular town for your depiction of them in a work of fiction, then you might as well give up and go home. Is the Newry of Orchid Blue bleak? Perhaps it is, but it is also full of mystery and possessed of a haunting beauty - you have to depict a place the way you see it.
Orchid Blue paints the legal system surrounding this case, and also the Curran case, in a quite cynical light. When I ask was this something McNamee was aware of growing up in the area he reveals his insight was broader than most. I grew up in a legal family, so I have a sense of that world, and how deeply corrupted it was. Its one of the things that the book is about. If the Judge is tainted, then what recourse does man have?
Since the novel is so closely based on actual events, I wonder if McNamee had to spend as much time researching as he did writing. Im inclined to research the subject lightly before writing a book - to come away with impressions and textures. Then, when Ive finished, I do in-depth research. I find, strangely, that when you get the story-telling right, the art and craft, the truth tends to follow it.
One would think that writing a novel so closely based on fact would be a much more difficult undertaking than writing something completely created in the imagination but McNamee makes a very interesting point about the process. Sometimes the alternative - a fiction which purports to be entirely invented - seems less honest. I started out making fictions out of real events and changing the names to disguise what I was doing before I realised how coy it was.
Although now living in Sligo, McNamee grew up close to the events of the novel in nearby Kilkeel and returned in more ways than just physically to write the novel. Im in the Newry/Mourne area every three or four weeks, but the town in the book is really somewhere between reality, imagination and memory. Ive had a few anomalies pointed out to me, but have also been told that Ive got it right in terms of textures and atmospheres - which is what I set out to do in the first place.
Finally, when I ask the author does he think he will ever return to that place, time and area with his writing in the future he simply replies; It won`t let me escape.