I had a pretty good month last November, when I met and interviewed both Eoin McNamee (right) and James Ellroy, whom I regard as two of the finest living writers we have. The Eoin McNamee interview ran a lot like this:
“I THINK THAT THIS is where noir fiction has its universal appeal, if you take that sort of Calvinist ideal of predestination. But if the judge is corrupt, if the person who is controlling the predestination is corrupt, then where do you go in the universe?”
It’s no easy thing to interview Eoin McNamee. The Down-born author of ORCHID BLUE, which was published late last year and was by some distance the finest Irish novel of the year, is by turns painfully self-effacing and given to profound pronunciations on the business of writing. He laughs a lot too, and defensively, as if concerned you might think he takes himself too seriously. What’s certain, though, is that he’s deadly serious about the business of writing.
ORCHID BLUE is a novel rooted in the real life murder of Pearl Gamble, who was stabbed to death in Newry in 1961. The man convicted of her murder, Robert McGladdery, was the last man to be hanged on Irish soil. But for McNamee, who has forged a career from writing novels based on historical facts, such as the Shankhill Butchers, the slaughter of the Miami Showband, and the death of Princess Diana, the conviction of McGladdery remains a dubious one.
“Well, the obvious link is Lance Curran,” says McNamee of his fascination with Pearl Gamble story, “who was connected to both cases - Curran’s daughter was murdered in the first case, which I wrote about in THE BLUE TANGO, and he tried Robert McGladdery for the murder of Pearl Gamble. I was researching the case in the newspaper archive in Belfast, and at this stage I hadn’t read Curran’s charge to the jury. But when I read it, as I describe it in the book, his summoning up was almost icily correct. At the time it was considered fair, but I suspect that it was to cut off every possible avenue of an appeal. I just felt a cold hand on the back of my neck, the way Judge Curran, with malice I thought, summed up the facts of McGladdery’s case. And that was pretty much the starting point.”
The novel, despite the fact that its ending is a matter of historical record, is a compelling page-turner of a thriller that evokes the atmosphere of its time and place with a dense but spare poetic style. McNamee has often been compared to James Ellroy and David Peace, two writers who also base their novels in historical fact, and he cites the infamous Black Dahlia case, upon which Ellroy based a novel, twice in ORCHID BLUE. Does he feel a sense of kinship with his fellow writers?
“I’d have come across the Black Dahlia case ever before I heard of James Ellroy,” he says, “so I’d certainly appreciate where they’re both coming from, but I was well set on my own path ever before I came across them. I suppose there is a sense of kinship, in the kind of stories we tell, the style of the writing, but it’d be very easy to fall into the trap of writing a sub-James Ellroy or sub-David Peace kind of writing. When I first read Ellroy and Peace I was thrilled, of course, but on their own terms as writers, not for any other reason.”
McNamee is a more formal and elegant writer than Ellroy or Peace, and his novels straddle the literary and crime genres. Despite the crime elements in his stories, however, McNamee’s novels offer a more profound experience than crime novels tend to do.
“Well, as you know yourself,” he says, “a lot of the genre crime stuff is written to entertain and not much else. But I’ve spoken before, I’ve used the phrase, about the novel being an attempt to apprehend the transcendent. And that’s a different kind of book entirely.”
Is there a danger, when writing novels rooted in historical fact, and given the benefits of hindsight, that the fictional aspect spills over into editorialising?
“That’s always possible,” he says, “but [ORCHID BLUE] is a 21st century novel. Obviously it’s about a story that took place 50 years ago, but in its structure and conception, it’s a 21st century novel. Certainly you’re putting things in there that may or may not have been there at the time, but it’s not verisimilitude, you’re not trying to write a historical novel.
“I suppose the thing is, you’re looking at people and the way they behaved within the boundaries that they knew, those of their time. You do have that particular framework. But justice, the concept of it, hasn’t changed since Plato’s time. And I was writing about corruption rather than justice, how people can act on these kind of absolutes when they’ve already been corrupted themselves.”
Does he owe a debt to the real-life characters he writes about?
“You’re always walking a moral tightrope,” he agrees, “to a certain extent. Looking back it seems quite easy, the story is what it is. But when you start talking about historical fact, you’re not really talking about the facts at all, you’re talking about the historical record. And that’s a different thing entirely to what the facts were.
“So you are making judgements all the time, asking yourself where you should take it, wondering if you’ve taken it over the line. But it’s an artistic line you don’t want to cross, if I can put it that way. If you get it wrong in the moral sense, then you get it wrong. But I’m a writer, not a priest. And as a writer, you answer to the god of fiction.”
Eoin McNamee’s ORCHID BLUE is published by Faber and Faber.
This interview was first published in the Evening Herald.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.