No 589 The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee: Book 3 of #20booksofsummer

 

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Eoin McNamee has made his name as an author of noirish literary reimaginings of real life crimes. From the Shankill Butchers to Princess Diana, he mines the novelistic possibilities that real life murder and conspiracy is alive with. His writing is lyrical, at times beautiful and always at odds with his subject matter.

The events of The Blue Tango may read like a fiction, but are actually based on an actual murder. In November 1952, the body of 19 year old Patricia Curran was discovered in the driveway of her home in Whiteabbey near Belfast. She had been stabbed 37 times. Iain Hay Gordon, a shy and solitary Scotsman serving with the RAF in Northern Ireland was convicted of her murder on the grounds of temporary insanity. It emerged that there had been a serious, high-level cover up into Patricia’s murder and despite it emerging that evidence had been withheld and that Gordon had been coerced into signing a confession, it wasn’t until 2000 that Mr Gordon managed to clear his name and has his false conviction quashed.

It is easy to see what would have drawn McNamee to this story. The wrongful conviction aside, the circumstances and characters surrounding Patricia Curran’s murder are the stuff of pulp crime novels. Her father, the high profile, highly connected Judge Curran was a gambler and heavily in debt. Before her death they had fought and he had cut off her tuition fees at university. Her moralistic, brow beaten mother hated the fact that Patricia had boyfriends and that she took a summer job driving a truck.

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Patricia photographed with her family

 

Her brother Desmond was a prominent member of the evangelical Moral Rearmament, and it was Desmond’s attempts to convert Iain Hay Gordon that initially brought Gordon in to contact with Patricia. Throw into the mix a dark, foreboding family house, a gothic Manderlay of sorts that held secrets that can still only be guessed at.

There was something not right up in that big house. There’s a twist in that Curran family that’s what I’m saying.

Outside of the big house, the peripheral characters are equally unsavoury from the bookie who is holding Judge Curran to ransom over unpaid debts, to the homosexual barber who is in the middle of everyone’s business, McNamee captures them all perfectly, particularly their need to be in the middle of the drama and excitement that such a high profile crime brings to a small town. They discover roles for themselves within a story that seems to be driven along by the hand of some invisible narrator. A local doctor is ‘a minor character, but one determined to imbue his role with an air of competent integrity’ while the Judge’s ‘role in the public narrative was established early. He was to be the good man bowed low by parental grief’

Rather than play this down, McNamee heightens the noir aspect of the story, emphasising how everyone begins to play the part expected of them. This is a book full of men hiding their true selves. Iain Hay Gordon pleaded guilty to the murder of Patricia Curran on threat of his mother being told that he was gay. Patricia’s father maintained the façade of successful upper-class business man while his life was falling apart around him. The only person who seems to have been truly herself was Patricia Curran.

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The search of the crime scene

 

The great success of The Blue Tango is to bring Patricia to life as something other than victim. Brash, headstrong and lively, the Patricia that comes off these pages is a fascinatingly independent young woman who loved painting, drove a delivery truck for a builder’s yard and had a wicked sense of humour. McNamee highlights her early feminist leanings, her disdain for the societal pressures put upon her and her yearning for a different kind of life away from the suffocating atmosphere of the family home.

He cleverly depicts how Patricia, in her role as murder victim, simply became a vessel for everyone else’s thoughts and fears – an iconic figure defined only by the mystery of her last few hour, rather than the life, albeit a short one, that came before.

Patricia seemed to accumulate images about her that day. The kind of images that photographers look for when they are attempting to find a study of grimy, mid-century atmospherics…the policeman wasn’t asking for evidence of a crime, but for a sign that she was already in the vicinity of death, that she was within its spectral confine and had conceded part of herself to it

Her final night at a club called Orchid Blue takes on an eerie prefiguring, as what happens later that night casts a shadow back over what has gone before.

Others maintained that there was indeed an escort, one that accounted for her deathly pallor, the way she drank and refused conversation with others, and that, at the end of the night, she was seen in the middle of the dance floor on her own, dancing with jerky reluctant steps as though she took her lead from a sure footed and macabre suitor.

In order to make Patricia’s death fit a neater narrative, her virtue is pored over – her sexual activity, her relationship with a married man, the nature of her death. The press and the public found it more palatable to think that she in some way deserved what she got.

They talked about Patricia Curran. Rumours had reached them of her sexual history. They said she drank in the bars of Amelia Street where the whores were. She was the kind of girl that was referred to as out of control. They thought she might be better off as a victim of murder. It brought a softness to her….They felt it had rescued her femininity. It brought a grandeur and a pathos to the meanness of her life. It enabled them to feel sympathy for her, feel for her as if she were a daughter, full of promise, a little wayward, in need of a guiding hand. They used words like wayward. They used words like guiding hand.

So, what did happen to Patricia Curran? Why did her father call her boyfriend and ask him if Patricia was there after he already knew she was dead? Why was there a delay in the finding of the body and calling the police? Why was Patricia’s body moved and taken to the local GPs office, disturbing the crime scene? Why did her parents strip everything from her bedroom, including carpets and curtains and burn them?

While these questions are mulled over, The Blue Tango doesn’t answer them. How could it? The facts are that Patricia was murdered and high ranking members of the police and the judiciary moved in and framed an innocent man. To protect whom? The most likely answer is Judge Curran or another family member, but McNamee has said himself that he doesn’t explore these crimes through fiction in order to offer solutions. There are no solutions because the facts of the case are unchangeable. But fiction can shine a light on what we can’t know, the humanity at the centre of these lurid, headline grabbing tales. As McNamee says,

“I often feel if you get the art right, the truth tends to follow. Someone said the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery, there aren’t any easy solutions and I’m not trying to offer any. I would like people to come away with an appreciation of the depth of humanity and the mysteries of life, not offer glib solutions. This is where my books differ from the crime genre where things are tied up neatly at the end.”

The Blue Tango is undoubtedly a crime novel, but despite the dark and painful subject matter, the writing style is luminous and lyrical, often poetic at times. McNamee is particularly thoughtful in his depiction of the other victim of this story – Iain Hay Gordon.

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Iain Hay Gordon pictured entering the courtroom

 

Gordon had constructed a version of his childhood that portrayed his parents as small, unemphatic people, tending to their child with gentle hands. This illusion of their vulnerability was among the elements that contributed to his eventual confession to the murder.

He thought his mother could not bear any pain. In fact, following his conviction his parents sold their house, moved into rented accommodation, and set about attempting to establish his innocence with a calm-eyed and undemonstrative rigour that sustained them for years….until at first one then the other died and were buried in a shabby Glasgow graveyard.

This is where the writer’s imagination meets with factual realism to create a picture of the humanity at the heart of this noirish tale. Patricia Curran was a victim of someone and Iain Hay Gordon was a victim too. In The Blue Tango, Eoin McNamee remembers them as people, rather that characters in a lurid press story and that is the main success of this fascinating book.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 158

Number Remaining: 588

20 books

My 20 Books of Summer List is Finalised!

 

 

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I have finally managed to come up with my reading list for 20 Books of Summer – always my favourite part of this challenge. I’m excited to read these books now, but you can sure as hell bet that by August I’ll be sick of them!

From 1 June to 3 September, I’m going to attempt, for the fourth year, to read my 20 Books of Summer. That’s 7 books a month, which is pretty daunting, but I think I can do it. I managed it last year, although reviews were shorter than usual!

As always, I had great fun putting this list together, although, this is about the sixth version since I started planning. I’ve tried to go for a broad range of genres, eras and styles so that there is always something I’m going to want to read! There are factual books, memoirs, short stories, a very short story and some classic and more contemporary novels.

As with last year, I’ve done a page count, so I have 6128 pages to read over 95 days, meaning I have to read 65 pages a day to complete my challenge. If I could just stop playing Jelly Crush and watching Line of Duty that would be completely do-able…

So, here are my 20 Books for summer 2017, you can click on the titles read their descriptions on Goodreads:

the hunters

1. The Hunters by Claire Messud

I adored The Woman Upstairs when I read it a few years ago, so I’m looking forward to this collection of two novellas. And yes, the phrase ‘novella’ is always attractive when putting together my 20 Books list.

blue tango

2. The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee

I’m a sucker for true crime and really loved Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, which is filled with beautiful writing despite the harrowing subject matter. The Blue Tango is a fictionalised account of a real life murder in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

yellow wallpaper

3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This one is a little bit of a cheat as it’s a short story rather than a book, but I need to cut myself some slack here! I’ve been meaning to read this feminist classic for some time now, and at 26 pages, this seems like the perfect time to read it!

calf

4. Calf by Andrea Kleine

Calf was a birthday present from my husband, so won’t be one of the 746, however I’m intrigued by the description of it as being a cross between Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret and Taxi Driver. Taking the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan as her inspiration, Kleine fictionalises the story of John Hinckley and Leslie Deveau and tells it through the eyes of a 12 year old girl.

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5. No one Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

I’m a fan of Miranda July’s movies, particularly You, Me and Everyone We Know so I’m looking forward to this collection of short stories.

sundance kids

6. Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood by James Mottram

This is one choice I may well regret, as it is a BIG book, but I do love a book about the movies. Here James Mottram charts the rise of the indie filmmakers in the 1990s – Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Stephen Soderbegh – and explores how their work changed the cinematic landscape.

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7. A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy

Dermot Healy died in 2014 and remains one of the most underrated Irish writers. His fans included Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle. A Goat’s Song is considered to be his greatest work, as it chars the doomed love affair between an alcoholic playwright and his actress muse.

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8. The London Train by Tessa Hadley

I actually know very little about this novel, or Tessa Hadley’s work but imagine I bought this after it was longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2011.

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9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

I must have about five Alice Munro books in the 746, so I think this is a well overdue choice. A twitter call out suggested this collection of short stories was a good starting point for her work.

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10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Another classic I’ve been meaning to read for several years, The Awakening shocked readers in 1899 with its depiction of female infidelity.

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11. The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

Here’s another novel I don’t remember buying and know very little about! Anyone help me out? All I know is it’s an epic love story played out against the backdrop of the Korean War!

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12. Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

This collection of short stories seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book, but edgy, creepy short stories are just my thing and any book that contains the story that the movie Secretary is based on gets my vote!

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13. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Like Alice Munroe, I’ve bought loads of Murakami books and never got round to reading them. I really hope I like this, as I think I’ve got about five more to get through once I’m finished!

housekeeping

14. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

It was a toss-up between Housekeeping and Gilead, but I thought I would go for Robinson’s first book for my first reading of her work. I’ve heard rapturous praise for Housekeeping, and Robinson’s work in general so this should be a good one.

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15. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I started Half Blood Blues last year and gave up after a few pages for no good reason, so I’m putting on the list to try and finish it this time round.

dead stars

16. Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner

I have a feeling this is going to be a strange one. A satire on Hollywood, it sounds less La La Land and more Maps to the Stars. Featuring drug addicted American Idol contestants, failed celebrity photographers and Michael Douglas, I could be in for a treat here, or I could want to throw it out the window.

olive

17. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Is I just me, or has Elizabeth Strout been everywhere for the last few years? Having read all your glowing reviews for My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, I was delighted to find a copy of Olive Kitteridge lurking, forgotten in my iBooks.

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18. Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Peter Carey, but have always enjoyed his books, particularly Oscar and Lucinda. As a former Art gallery manager, I’m always drawn to books about art and artists, so should enjoy this tale of an old famous painter whose life is turned upside down by a mysterious young woman.

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19. Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is another writer I haven’t read for a long time and I like the sound of this character driven thriller.

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20. Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage

Anyone who knows me, will know my love for Simon Armitage, so he fills this year’s music memoir slot as he explores the importance music has had on his life and career.

So that’s my 20 books, however this year I’ve allocated two ‘spares’ just in case one of my 20 isn’t working for me and they are:

1. Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is getting rave reviews and Zone One has been on my TBR for ages now. I’ve tried to read it quite a few times now, which it why it’s a possible replacement rather than a firm choice. I’m just not sure that it’s for me, although I do love a good zombie story…

2. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson hasn’t let me down yet, from Life After Life to Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The only reason this isn’t on the main list is because I’ve read a lot of Atkinson’s work over the last couple of years and would like to try some other authors this time round.

So, what do you think of the choices? Any I should start first? Any you think I’m mad to include? Does anyone think my spare reads should be in my main list?

I’ll be keeping a pinned Master post on the blog from 1 June, with a Linky where you can share your lists if you are taking part.

Remember, if 20 seems too daunting, then there are the 15 and 10 options also!

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10books

 

Just take the Books of Summer image, pick your own 10, 15 or 20 books you’d like to read and link back to my Master post so I know you’re taking part.  I’d love your support and as anyone who has taken part before will know, I am wonderfully slack with my rules!

I’ll be tweeting my way through the challenge as well using the hashtag #20booksofsummer. Do let me know if you will be joining in and don’t forget to link up your lists on Thursday when it all kicks off!

 

 

The Irish Crime Week Giveaway!

Following the Roddy Doyle giveaway last week (which was won by Col at The Only Way is Reading), this week I have a crime related prize up for grabs!

 

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Photo: DRB Images

 

As I’m going to be spending the week reading and reviewing Irish Crime Fiction, I’m offering one lucky winner signed copies of Eoin McNamee’s Blue is the Colour and Stuart Neville’s The Final Silence, along with a rather nifty tote bag from Northern Ireland’s greatest bookshop – No Alibis (where both these books were bought!)

Blue is the Night (taken from Eoin McNamee’s website)

1949. Lance Curran is set to prosecute a young man for a brutal murder, in the ‘Robert the Painter’ case, one which threatens to tear society apart. In the searing July heat, corruption and justice vie as Harry Ferguson, Judge Curran’s fixer, contemplates the souls of men adrift, and his own fall from grace with the beautiful and wilful Patricia. Within three years, Curran will be a judge, his nineteen year old daughter dead, at the hands of a still unknown murderer, and his wife Doris condemned to an asylum for the rest of her days.

In Blue is the Night, it is Doris who finally emerges from the fog of deceit and blame to cast new light into the murder of her daughter – as McNamee once again explores and dramatizes a notorious and nefarious case.

 

 

The Final Silence (taken from Stuart Neville’s website)

Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from an uncle she never knew. It doesn’t take her long to clear out the dead man’s remaining possessions, but one room remains stubbornly locked. When Rea finally forces it open she discovers inside a chair, a table – and a leather-bound book. Inside its pages are locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims.

Horrified, Rea wants to go straight to the police but when her family intervene, fearing the damage it could cause to her father’s political career, Rea turns to the only person she can think of: DI Jack Lennon. But Lennon is facing his own problems. Suspended from the force and hounded by DCI Serena Flanagan, the toughest cop he’s ever faced, Lennon must unlock the secrets of a dead man’s terrifying journal.

 

To be in wih a chance to win these books from two of Ireland’s greatest crime writers, simply comment below or retweet this post. Rules are the same as last week’s giveaway and the competition will close at 6pm on Saturday!

Good luck!

 

The Irresistible Rise of Irish Crime Fiction

Crime Collage

When asked why he chose to set his first crime novel in the US, Irish writer John Connolly said, ‘Because in Ireland everybody would’ve known who done it within days.’ Exaggeration aside, in the pre-Celtic Tiger landscape of Ireland, this may well have been the case, but it certainly isn’t nowadays as Irish crime fiction appears to be in its prime and becoming a genre of its own to rival our Scandinavian counterparts.

Val McDermid, in a recent Radio 4 programme coined the phrase ‘Emerald Noir’ – but whatever you call it, Celtic Crime or Hibernian Homicide is now gaining worldwide attention. Compared to back in the 1980s when you could possibly name Colin Bateman or Eoin McNamee as famous Irish crime writers, nowadays you have writers such as Tana French, Ken Bruen, Declan Hughes, Declan Burke, Arlene Hunt and Stuart Neville all jostling for the crime spotlight.

Tana French

Tana French

Is there a reason for this surge in crime writing from such a small island?

A lot of things are critical in a good crime novel. A sympathetic protagonist, a victim, an intriguing crime. But place also plays a lead role in the best of the genre. The setting of a good crime novel is the place that has been thrown into disorder and its characteristics – climate, culture, and politics – can become a crucial element in the story that is being played out.

In terms of place, Ireland as a whole has gone through some incredible changes in recent years. There has been the incredible boom of the Celtic Tiger years and the equally incredible bust that followed. The Good Friday Agreement and the installation of government at Stormont changed the landscape and mind set of Northern Ireland indelibly, taking away the old problems of on going daily terrorism, but bringing with it a rise in new types of crime – gangsters and drug wars.

What Ireland couldn’t offer pre- Celtic Tiger, pre -Stormont was anonymity. The country was too small, too parochial with a lack of big cities. With the economic growth of the boom all that changed and suddenly cities were booming and immigration was on the rise. It was possible to be a stranger in Ireland, to go unnoticed. With the crash came a growing distrust in politicians and those in power and coupled with a lack of faith in the Catholic Church, the old hierarchies were being disassembled and the lines between good and bad were being blurred even more. Society was no longer a hierarchy of authority with the priests and the politicians at the top. The gangsters were as likely to be in expensive offices as on the streets. Society had been shaken up and that makes for great subject matter for crime writers.

It makes sense that during the ‘Troubles’ crime fiction would be unpopular. Why read about something as an escape when it is being played out right outside your window. The ceasefire brought with it shifting sensibilities. Once terrorists are now political leaders, prisoners were freed and a different kind of crime was able to flourish. In Stuart Neville’s striking novel The Twelve (soon to be made into a movie) , an ex-republican killer is literally haunted by the ghosts of those he killed and takes his revenge for their deaths, but the book is more than a revenge thriller, it is a deft examination of the political and social reality of a new Northern Ireland. I will review The Twelve later in the week.

Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville

In some ways, crime fiction is often the most effective way of exploring a changing society. In an interview with the Guardian, crime master Henning Mankell said

Look at Medea: a woman murders her kids because she’s jealous of her husband. If that’s not a crime story, I don’t know what is. And if the ancient Greeks had had a police force, you can be damn sure a detective inspector would have had a part in Medea. Society and its contradictions become clear when you write about crime.

There has been a crime writing in the past in Ireland, particularly Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer and the work of Patrick McGinley. More ‘literary’ writers such as Bernard MacLaverty with Cal and Brian Moore with Lies of Silence veered into crime territory, but always under the shadow of the ‘Troubles’. In the 90s Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man was a breakthrough and Colin Batemans Crossmaheart series, the most famous being Divorcing Jack, dealt with crime and terrorism through comedy. What is interesting now is that there is no one particular style coming through with this new wave of Irish Crime Fiction. In The Twelve (aka The Ghosts of Belfast) Stuart Neville writes a kind of hard-boiled style with a lone protagonist avenging past wrongs. Tana French uses the police procedural (through her fictional Dublin Murder Squad) to explore issues of identity in a changing city and Arlene Hunt’s QuicK detective agency has echoes of Denis Lehane’s duo Kenzie and Gennaro. John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, is interested in historic fiction, setting his stories in 1950s Dublin.  The official ending of the ‘Troubles’ has been a turning point in the genre as the villains in our society are now less obvious and the question of whose side you are on is less easy to answer.

What Michael Connolly says in his foreword to Down These Green Streets, a collection of writing on Irish Crime edited by Declan Burke, is that

These writers know the secret. That the examination of a crime is an examination of society. The form is simply the doorway we go through as we enter lives and worlds as fully realised as in any fiction, as we examine issues and societies and moral dilemmas that are important to all of us.

Those Scandinavians better watch their backs. The Irish are coming!

If you are interested in reading more about Irish Crime fiction, check out Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays blog which is packed full of reviews and information as is Gerard Brennan’s Crime Scene NI blog. Declan Burke’s comprehensive book ‘Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the Twenty First Century’ is a fantastic collection of essays and short stories, examining the genre of Irish crime by those who are currently writing it.

No Alibis Bookstore at 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast.

No Alibis Bookstore at 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast.

If you are ever in Belfast, I urge you to visit the amazing No Alibis Bookstore in Botanic Avenue, Northern Ireland’s only specialist crime book shop. David and his staff host regular readings and events and are the most helpful and enthusiastic book lovers you will ever meet and are always on hand with recommendations and a cuppa.

Keep an eye out tomorrow for my Great Crime Giveaway!