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

 

51x5WIaTQYL__SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

riciaCurran_3

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.

2015-09-05_new_12575722_I1

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.

iain hay g

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

The Books that Built the Blogger: The Twelfth Day of July by Joan Lingard

built-bloggers

The book I have chosen for this week’s The Book That Built the Blogger is Joan Lingard’s 1970 book The Twelfth Day of July – another book that would probably be considered YA today but which opened my eyes to the possibilities of where books could go – and more imp

The Twelfth Day of July was first published in 1970 when I was 9 years old, however I think I was at least 13 when I read it.

Written by Joan Lingard, who spent her teenage years in Northern Ireland, The Twelfth Day of July is the first in a quintet of books, often known as the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ series. Acting as a kind of retelling of the Romeo & Juliet tale, the books follow the lives of Kevin, a Catholic and Sadie a Protestant as they grow up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, meeting as teenagers and following them until they become adults with children of their own.

Despite living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, The Twelfth Day of July struck a chord with me for one main reason. It had never occurred to me that someone could write a book about where I came from. Up until that point, I believed that everyone I wanted to read about either went to boarding school in England or high school in America. The idea that the experience of living in Northern Ireland was valid material for a book – and not a history book! – was beyond me.

july

Joan Lingard also manages a great balancing act with this novel. She does not take sides. The books two opening chapters focus on the same dinner time in two separate households. One Protestant and one Catholic and the first thing that strikes the reader is the similarities between the two rather than the differences. This probably seems like a sensible approach nowadays, but writing in the 1970s with the actual Troubles as the backdrop makes it all the more striking.

She also created a fantastic female protagonist in the character of Sadie – brash, ballsy and smart, she never sees herself as being anything but equal to any of the men in her life. As the book opens, Sadie and her brother Tommy are getting ready for the biggest day in the Protestant calendar – the 12th of July. A few streets down, Kevin and his mates are planning to deface a mural of ‘King Billy’ – William of Orange – however Sadie catches them in the act and starts a feud between the two which eventually goes horribly wrong, before bringing them closer together.

The Twelfth Day of July could also have gone horribly wrong, by becoming preachy or strident. However Lingard has a sure touch and the books are realistic in depicting both the difficulties of having a relationship with someone from ‘the other side’ and in how ordinary, everyday life carries on even in the middle of conflict. She tells a difficult story with humour and a light touch, but also doesn’t skirt away from the real issues that faced the population of Northern Ireland during those years.

I grew up with Kevin and Sadie, recognised the situation they were living in and relished a book that explored my home country with all its beauty and all its flaws. Although it might read like history now, it wasn’t history when it was written or when I was reading it

67dac432

Joan Lingard

 

The books in the ‘Kevin and Sadie’ Quintet, comprise of: The Twelfth Day of July (1970); Across the Barricades (1972); Into Exile (1973); A Proper Place (1975); and Hostages to Fortune (1976) – and they follow Kevin and Sadie as they fall in love, move to England and raise a family, all under the shadow of where they have been born and the religions they have been born into. The effect these books had on me was to make me realise that literature can spring from anywhere and that all experiences, even ones like my own are stories in their own right.

Did anyone else read these books? I wonder if they were just popular in Northern Ireland? It would be great to know if they were read anywhere else.

Join me tomorrow when the fantastic FictionFan will share the books that made her the blogger she is today!

 

 

Putting Women Writers from the North of Ireland in the spotlight!

Yesterday it was announced that New Island Books will publish a new collection of short stories by women writers from the North of Ireland in Autumn 2016.

Sinead Gleeson

Sinead Gleeson

The book, called The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland will be edited by journalist and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and it is hoped it will emulate the success of her previous anthology The Long Gaze Back which has been a hugely successful celebration of the short stories of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back won the Best Irish Published Book of the Year 2015 at the Irish Book Awards and has met with critical and popular acclaim bringing women writers to the fore.

The-Long-Gaze-Back

The Glass Shore aims to do the same for women writers from Northern Ireland. Spanning three generations of writers, the anthology will feature both emerging and established writers along with deceased and often forgotten voices.

The anthology will feature writers such as Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell, Evelyn Conlon (whose own anthology of women’s writing Cutting the Night In Two is well worth checking out), Danielle McLaughlin, Bernie McGill, Anne Devlin, Helen Waddell, Martina Devlin and Rosemary Jenkinson to name but a few.

I am particularly pleased to see the inclusion of Ethna Carbery in the collection as she was born not far from my house and was one of my father’s favourite writers. Her poem ‘Thinkin’ Long’ graced the noticeboad by his desk all his life and now graces mine.

20160306_134211

Sinéad Gleeson is a broadcaster and critic who presents The Book Show on RTE Radio 1 and writes about arts and culture for various publications including The Irish Times and The Pool.

During Reading Ireland Month, I will be interviewing Sinéad about The Long Gaze Back and Irish Women Writers and will also be giving away a copy of the book.

This week on the blog will be all about the short story and I will also be reviewing Danielle McLaughlin’s short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets on Tuesday to celebrate Women Aloud NI.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you’d like to check out some short stories by women writers from Northern Ireland, the following are available online:

Jan Carson – We’ve Got Each Other and That’s A Lot

Danielle McLaughlin – In The Act of Falling

Bernie McGill – No Angel

Ethna Carberry – The Pursuit of Diarmuid & Grainne

The Glass Shore, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island Books will be published in Autumn 2016.

PicMonkey Collage

Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville

I read Stuart Neville’s The Twelve for Reading Ireland Month back in March and was impressed with a thrilling, well-paced crime novel that perfectly depicted a Northern Ireland trying to come to terms with life after the ostensible end of the Troubles.

Those_We_Left_Behind_Stuart_Neville-220x330

His new novel Those We Left Behind, he has moved on immeasurably from The Twelve, featuring both a new lead protagonist – DCI Serena Flanagan and a Belfast that is no longer defined by sectarian sides. It is interesting that as Northern Ireland moves on from the violence that has plagued its past, Neville should look more to the psychological thriller and explore a different type of violence and anger from that which has grabbed the headlines for the last four decades. Those We Left Behind is a strong police procedural, with an intriguing lead character, but is also a subtle study in the pain that can be suffered upon and is suffered during childhood.

Ciaran Devine is being released from a young offender’s centre after serving seven years for the brutal murder of his foster father, which he claimed was in retaliation for sexual abuse perpetrated on his brother Thomas. Thomas was charged as an accessory, but DCI Flanagan, after forming a bond with the boy, always felt that Ciaran was taking the blame for his older, colder brother.

Ciaran’s release is far from easy on anyone connected to the original crime. Serena Flanagan is determined to find out why Ciaran took the blame for his brother, putting her career and her family in harms way in the process. Ciaran’s probation officer Paula Cunningham finds herself in danger when she too tries to look closer at the case and keep Ciaran away from what she sees as the malign influence of his brother Thomas and Daniel Rolston, son of the murdered man, is thrown into turmoil by the boy’s release which sparks a devastating spiral into grief and rage.

Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville

Serena Flanagan is also battling her own demons, having just returned to work following surgery for breast cancer and is struggling to keep her family and personal life on track. She is a fascinating character – flawed, complex and stubborn – pushing the boundaries when she needs to and following her gut instinct even when it puts her in danger. Her strength and her vulnerability co-exist perfectly and Neville uses both these traits to push the story along.

The unrelenting narrative is peppered with flashbacks, showing us how the relationship between Flanagan and Ciaran has developed, from their initial meeting while she investigated the murder of his foster father, through to his current obsession with her and her attempts to prove that he was unfairly charged. Neville balances this insight well, giving the reader emotional depth and impact without sacrificing any suspense. The writing is clear and resonates with tenderness and in particular Ciaran’s return to the outside world is examined with a subtle poignancy which reminds us that freedom can bring as much fear as happiness.

The breeze is strange on his skin. And the light. Ciaran can feel the light, as if he could split apart the colours, his skin knowing one from the other. He is outside in the world and he doesn’t know how to feel

But where Neville really excels is in the depiction of the relationship between the brothers, Ciaran and Thomas. We know something is very, very wrong here, their fractured painful childhood creating fractured men who are in still in pain. These are not children of a political struggle, but of a more universal and recognisable struggle against the circumstances and failures of their upbringing. Ciaran, we are reminded, has not experienced the Troubles. Their loyalty is not to one side or the other, but is only to one another and as chilling and horrifying as their co-dependent relationship is, Neville is a compassionate enough writer to remind us that these are not children born evil, but victims in their own twisted way.

Ciaran can’t hold it back anymore. The tears come, hot and thick, wetting the pillow against his cheek. Thomas holds him tighter, whispers beautiful worlds that glitter in Ciaran’s mind like silver

In a strange way, Those We Left Behind is a more frightening book that The Twelve because the violence is at less of a remove. This may not be the Northern Ireland of terrorists and politicians, but the country still plays a key role in the story and the detail in the locations makes for a satisfying read, particularly when a murder occurs near to where I once lived at University, or a suspect is taken for questioning to Antrim Police Station, situated opposite my place of work. From Lisburn to Botanic Gardens and through to the stunning denouement on a beach near Newcastle, Neville makes the landscape of Northern Ireland work for his story.

Beach, County Down, Image: Shutterstock

Beach, County Down
Image: Shutterstock

This may be the book to take Stuart Neville to a new level. It is an incredibly well-written novel that is both thrilling and moving, suspenseful and compassionate. In its scope, it reminds us that violence often ripples through time and through many lives, creating repercussions that we cannot imagine and a lasting aftermath that can be devastating. It may not be an uplifting book, but it does glimmer with flashes of hope, reminding us that the influence of good people has the potential to pull us back from the brink and break the cycle of violent behaviour.

I was given a copy of Those We Left Behind from the publishers through Net Galley in return for an honest review.