ORCHID BLUE, McNamee’s latest offering, is something of a sequel to THE BLUE TANGO (2001). Set in Newry in 1961, it employs the murder of 19-year-old shop assistant Pearl Gamble, and the subsequent investigation, for its narrative arc. Robert McGladdery, who was seen dancing with Pearl on the night of her murder, is considered the main suspect, but Detective Eddie McCrink, a Newry native returning to home soil from London, discovers a very disturbing set of circumstances. Not only have the local police decided that McGladdery fits the bill as murderer, but McGladdery himself appears to welcome the notoriety. Most disturbing of all, however, is the man who presides over the court case when McGladdery is brought to trial. As the father of Patricia Curran, who was murdered in very similar circumstances ten years previously, Lord Justice Lance Curran should have disbarred himself as judge. McCrink quickly comes to understand that the ‘soft spoken and implacable’ Justice Curran has actively sought the position, and is determined that whoever murdered Pearl Gamble should hang. Moreover, it’s clear from the beginning of the novel that Justice Curran and the powers-that-be, including then Northern Ireland Secretary Brian Faulkner, want to see someone hanged for the murder.
Lance Curran’s daughter Patricia was found savagely murdered on November 13th, 1952. She had suffered 37 separate stab wounds. Iain Gordon, an Englishman stationed at a nearby RAF base, was arrested, tried and convicted of her murder. The evidence was circumstantial, however, and Gordon was released on appeal a year after his conviction. The real killer of Patricia Curran was never caught. In ORCHID BLUE, McNamee delves back into ‘the Blue Tango’ case, exploring Patricia Curran’s family history, and suggesting that her killer was well known to her, and possibly a family member.
Students of Irish history will know that Robert McGladdery was the last man to be hanged on Irish soil, a fact that infuses Orchid Blue with a noir-ish sense of fatalism and the inevitability of retribution. That retribution and State-sanctioned revenge are no kind of justice is one of McNamee’s themes here, however, and while the story is strained through an unmistakably noir filter, McNamee couches the tale in a form that is ancient and classical, with McGladdery pursued by Fate and its Furies and Justice Curran a shadowy Thanatos overseeing all.
McGladdery, according to the novel at least, is the perfect patsy. He is something of an unknown presence in Newry, having returned to the town from London with notions above his station, yet lacking the substance to secure or keep a job. He is vain, fascinated with lurid novels, works out as a body-builder, and keeps less than salubrious company. Perhaps it was the case that McGladdery didn’t believe that the evidence was strong enough to convict him, but for most of the investigation he appeared to delight in the attention he received. The son of a single mother, Agnes, Robert was perhaps always operating at an attention deficit, given his mother’s predilection for hard drinking and one-night stands.
McNamee has described the noir novel as a very ‘Calvinist’ kind of storytelling, with its undertones of implacable fate and predestination. What hope is there for a person if he or she has been fingered by fate before they’re even born? And what hope if the ultimate arbiter of justice - God, for the most part, although McNamee’s arbiter of justice in ORCHID BLUE is Justice Lance Curran - is already prejudiced against the person in the dock?
The repressed sexuality of the times, and sexual hypocrisy in particular, is a strong secondary theme in ORCHID BLUE, as it was in THE BLUE TANGO. Given the context of 1961 Newry, there’s an element of character assassination that goes along with reports of Pearl Gamble’s last movements in ORCHID BLUE - the very fact that she was at a dance, runs the theory, is akin to her ‘asking for it’. This despite the fact that Pearl Gamble was not sexually assaulted prior to or after her murder. ‘Pearl had been stripped naked,’ writes McNamee, ‘but in the words of the lead detective John Speers, ‘it was a mercy she was not outraged.’’
In terms of McGladdery, McNamee writes: ‘It was these materials that were found when the Newry police raided Robert’s house, leading to the rumours which swept the town concerning Robert’s sexual preferences.’
A minor character in the novel, Margaret, the girlfriend of investigating detective Eddie McCrink, is a single woman of a certain age, and so must conduct her affair with McCrink in privacy, so as not to offend the town’s sensibilities.
The relationship between Robert and his mother, Agnes, is also given a flavour of repressed sexuality:
‘Robert would watch Agnes at her dressing table getting ready to go out … He saw it on her clothes when she came home. The zips and fasteners strained at. A button missing. Fabric pulls and ladders in the stockings … She seemed ruined in an epic way, smelling of gin and smoke, sitting on the edge of his bed … She would stroke his face and murmur his name.’These are all echoes of similar themes explored in THE BLUE TANGO, when the investigation of the murder of Patricia Curran gets bogged down in her sexual exploits.
McNamee’s preference for fictionalising true-life crimes has led to comparisons with David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet and the work of James Ellroy (McNamee twice references the infamous Black Dahlia case in ORCHID BLUE), although McNamee offers a more elegant, formal style of prose. Indeed, the style is often densely lyrical. Depending on your point of view, the brevity of the sentences and the dense lyricism can lend itself to poetry or the staccato rhythms of the classical noir novel.
Relentlessly sinister in tone and poisonously claustrophobic, the novel is equally capable of almost unbearable poignancy, such as when the emotionally brutalised Robert McGladdery writes from his prison cell:
‘My mother Agnes McGladdery what can be said about her she done her best. I wish she’d stayed home nights when I was small the wind was loud in the slates it roared dear God it roared.’Knowing that the novel is based on a true-life murder and its investigation, it’s difficult to read the novel without wondering where the reportage ends and the fiction begins. McNamee’s research appears to be terrific, and the period detail is beautifully wrought, but you do start to wonder about the extent to which he is editorialising when he begins to write, for example, from Robert McGladdery’s point of view.
That said, McNamee does not overly indulge in hindsight, or explore events in 1961 from a 21st century morality. It’s also true that what was immoral in 1961 - if McGladdery, for example, was being framed for a murder he did not commit - then such an act is equally immoral in 2010.
All told, ORCHID BLUE is a powerful tour-de-force and probably McNamee’s finest novel to date. - Declan Burke