Sitting down to interview Eoin McNamee, you anticipate a serious conversation with a serious man. Born in 1961 and raised in Kilkeel, Co. Down, and now living in Sligo, McNamee is a prize-winning author and a member of Aosdana who has written critically acclaimed novels about historical figures as diverse as the Shankill Butchers and Diana, the former Princess of Wales.This interview was first published in the Irish Examiner.
Yet the man who bandies about notions such as evil, madness and Calvinist pre-determination in the context of the noir novel has a disarming smile that undercuts most of his pronouncements, laughing delightedly at any perceived absurdity that crops up in relation to his latest novel, Blue is the Night, which is as dark a slice of gothic noir as has ever been carved out of Irish history.
Blue is the Night is the final novel in a loose trilogy that began in 2001 with The Blue Tango (which was longlisted for the Booker Prize) and continued with Orchid Blue in 2010. The trilogy is woven around Sir Lancelot Curran, whose career took him from lawyer to judge and on to Attorney General and Member of Parliament, but Blue is the Night investigates the brutal murder of Curran’s daughter, Patricia, outside their home in Whiteabbey in 1952. It focuses on Lance Curran’s wife, Doris, and his right-hand man and political fixer, Harry Ferguson.
The book is by no means a straightforward crime fiction investigation, however.
“I always like to quote Francis Bacon,” says Eoin, “who said that the job of all art is to deepen the mystery. This book is about the mystery of Patricia Curran, and what really happened to her, and by extension the mystery she inherited from her family, her father and her mother.
“I started out originally, perhaps, to find out who killed Patricia Curran,” he continues, “but the book became about something other than that. It became more about ‘What is mystery?’ What is it that drives these stories, that drives people’s compulsion towards these stories?”
One possible answer is a fascination with transgression, the idea of flirting with evil itself.
“I keep coming back, when I talk about this book,” says Eoin, “to what Gordon Burns said about covering the Fred and Rosemary West trial. He said he could never again write the books he’d written before that trial, because he felt the presence of evil in that courtroom. There is an atmosphere of spiritual harm around the Currans, and that’s really what I’m interested in.”
One strand of Blue is the Night finds Lance Curran prosecuting Robert Taylor, a Protestant man accused of murdering a Catholic woman. If wrong had a human form, observes Ferguson of Taylor. Is McNamee himself arguing for the existence of evil?
“There was just something about the character of Taylor,” Eoin says, “something of the malicious imp that’s almost outside the human. Then there’s this kind of man-boy persona that he has – at one stage he’s almost like a character out of an Eastern European piece of folklore. An imp, ancient malice personified.”
References to old European folktales, and the proto-fairytales of Charles Perrault, resurface throughout.
“It comes up in this book, the idea of the forest, and in the old folktales the forest represents the darkness of the mind and also the concealment of malice, the concealment of evil,” says Eoin. “At one point Patricia Curran talks about the wolves of the forest, the kind of thing you read in East European folktales. And Ferguson talks about his time at Nuremburg, of driving through the trees to get there … Things like that appeal to me. It kind of reminds me of the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer – evil and demons at play.”
One on level the novel is about the timelessness of evil and how it reappears in different guises in all cultures throughout history. McNamee refers to the ‘ancient malice’ represented by the mummy Takabuti that Ferguson sees in a Belfast museum, and the novel also stretches back in time to late Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper.
Another writer might have drawn a straight line between Doris Curran growing up in Broadmoor and the fact that she was committed to Holywell mental institution in 1953, the year after her daughter was stabbed to death.
“No, it’s not that simple,” says Eoin. “I mean, the implication in the book is that Doris was ‘interfered’ with as a child in some way by Thomas Cutbush, but whether that’s a physical act or a psychic act is not made explicit. But just to be brought into such a commanding presence of evil can be sufficient. Again, it comes back to that word malice – about malice spreading out from a moment.”
As we talk about the way in which Eoin McNamee writes fiction around historical crimes, the conversation touches upon the trial of Oscar Pistorius in South Africa for the alleged murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, and how much of the public’s interest in the case is prurient.
“I know,” Eoin agrees, “but I can’t help but be interested in the mind-set of somebody like Pistorius. What kind of rights they imagine they have. What permissions they imagine they have in life.”
It’s the idea of an elite class allowing themselves certain ‘permissions’ in life that drives ‘the Blue Trilogy’. Lance Curran and Harry Ferguson make for gripping characters precisely because they are self-corrupted.
“I suppose my own experience of people who are corrupted is that they’re not charmless,” says Eoin with a wry grin. “They’re not unsympathetic, even though they’re corrupt. And that’s what attractive and dangerous about them.”
In Eoin McNamee’s fiction, even such accomplished rule-breakers as Ferguson and Curran can find themselves at the mercy of Fate.
“It’s the idea of noir, if you like, being a kind of Calvinist idea of pre-determination – that what happens to you is destined to happen, that there’s a hand on the scales and all you can do is rage against it. The whole essence of the noir ‘hero’ is that you know the universe is stacked against you, and yet you go on and try to defy it. Is that what turns people like Ferguson and Curran? Is that what corrupts them? Because they’re unable to defy Fate?”
Harry Ferguson is a fictional creation, but the Curran family are historical figures. Is Eoin McNamee entitled to give himself ‘permission’ to use real people’s lives for the purpose of fiction?
“I did used to worry about the idea of overstepping the moral line,” he says, “but then I decided that I’m not a priest. I don’t have that kind of moral responsibility. But if I have overstepped the line and sinned, then I’ll be answerable to whatever authority you answer to for your sins. If there is one.”
Blue is the Night by Eoin McNamee is published by Faber & Faber.
“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.