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.

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Number Read: 158

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20 books

No 632 The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke

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When I was 7 years old, I developed ringworm on my face. After several rounds of medicine hadn’t cleared it up, my Mum took me to a local faith healer to try and treat it. This was 1978. As a child growing up in Catholic Ireland, my grandmother still believed in the banshee, my great aunt could foretell the future through her dreams and you never set foot inside a fairy ring. It should be no surprise then that 100 years previously in rural Ireland, a young woman was burnt to death by her husband who thought she was a fairy changeling.

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Bridget Cleary

Bridget Cleary has passed in to the stuff of legend. So goes the children’s rhyme

 Are you a witch or are you a fairy?

Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary

She is often cited as the last woman in Ireland to be burnt as a witch, but that is not entirely the case.

In March 1895, in Tipperary, Bridget Cleary, a healthy, intelligent and attractive 26 year old, fell ill with what was possibly bronchitis. Just over a week later, her husband, aided by her relatives, including her father, burnt her to death in her own kitchen and buried her in a makeshift grave. Only they didn’t agree that they had killed Bridget. Intheir minds, they had killed a changeling, a sickly, frail facsimile left in the place of Bridget when she was abducted by fairies. Her husband insisted that his real wife would soon return at a nearby fairy ring, riding a white horse.

 Cleary said that his wife had told him she would ride out of the fort on a white horse on the Sunday night, and that if he could cut the ropes that tied her to the saddle and keep her, she would stay with him

Of course, she didn’t reappear and Michael Cleary, Bridget’s father, her aunt and four cousins were all tried for murder with Michael eventually receiving a 20 year sentence. Upon his release, after serving 15 years, he emigrated to Montreal.

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Michael Cleary following his arrest

 

The story of Bridget Cleary lives on though and in Angela Bourke’s wide ranging examination of the case, she not only explores the crime against Bridget, but the social and cultural and folk lore beliefs in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. The murder of Bridget Cleary was widely reported in Irish and English newspapers and even in the New York Times, mainly due to the more fantastic elements of the case and Bourke has a lot of source material to work with, drawing out the wider political implications of the murder and its’ reporting at that time.

Ireland was undergoing a deep cultural change in the 1880s with a tension between the Catholic Irish belief system and the English push for progress and logic. The Land Bill and Home Rule were being debated and the newspapers covering Bridget Cleary’s murder took entrenched political sides when it came to the reporting of it.

 Newspapers and law courts told it one way; oral rumour and legend, concerned more with finding ways of skirting around the unspeakable and marking points of danger than with bringing offenders to justice, told it very differently.

Through the death of Bridget and the conviction of her husband, Bourke delineates these two very different ways of thinking, the clash of the peasantry, who brought their world to rights by exorcising a fairy and the modern culture of judgement and punishment.

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Bourke is very good at painting a portrait of rural Irish life at this time, with the focus on oral rumour and legend and she explores the customs and living conditions; salaries and manners of commerce; the role of the police and the Catholic Church and the constraints placed on women and how they were viewed in society. She has a keen knowledge of, and understanding for the traditional beliefs about fairies and the supernatural in a world where ways of thinking were not based on reading or learning, but on the oral tradition. Storytelling, music and song still held high currency in rural Ireland and Bourke describes the belief in fairy legend as a means of understanding the world.

 Fairy legend can be compared to a database: a pre-modern culture’s way of storing and retrieving information and knowledge of every kind, from hygiene and child care to history and geography.

Fairy legend also allowed the Irish peasantry to explain away the unexplainable. Child mortality, physical and mental disability and sudden illness were all the work of the fairies. The English word ‘stroke’ comes from the Irish ‘poc sí’ or ‘fairy stroke’ and Bourke points out that,

Fairy-belief legend provided a way of understanding congenital and other disabilities, or at least gave an imaginative framework which could accommodate them.

Fairy-belief explained the abnormal, the unacceptable and it was also used as a means to keep deviant behaviour in check in children and to remind women of their place within a patriarchal society.

Bridget Cleary was not your average 26 year old woman in Ireland in 1885. She was attractive, dressed well and spoke her mind, not too unusual, but she was also educated and economically self-sufficient. She kept hens (as many women at that time did) and was a dressmaker who owned a Singer sewing machine, a unique acquisition at that time and she dies with £20 in a jar under her bed, a year’s salary for a labourer at that time. Michael and Bridget were also childless, after eight years of marriage, a fact that would have given rise to gossip in the town. Bridget was generally seen as superior and aloof in the village, and there were rumours that she had a lover. She did not conform to social expectations, so it is not surprising that when she fell ill the rumours of fairy involvement started to circle.

Those who were jealous of her would have gained a certain satisfaction from seeing her chastened by illness, while stories about her abduction by fairies could have been a euphemistic way of noting her extra-marital activities.

But what of her husband, Michael Cleary? What did he believe? When his wife first fell ill, he certainly tried to help her, calling on the doctor (who did not come) and then the priest – who perhaps, unhelpfully, gave her the last rites. When these avenues failed him, he turned to a fairy doctor for a herbal remedy. Was he driven mad by lack of sleep and the death of his father two days previously to strike his wife and set her on fire? Did he genuinely believe she was a changeling and what he was doing was necessary? And what of Bridget herself? During her illness she seems to have goaded her husband, accusing his mother of being a changeling and telling her visitors that her husband ‘was making a fairy out of me’. Bourke never allows the reader to forget about the spirited, smart woman at the centre of this crime, a woman who, at the height of the torture she received, replied to her father’s question as to whether she was a fairy or Bridget Cleary, with the heart-breaking ‘it’s me, Dada’.

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The hearth where Bridget Cleary was burned to death.

 

Bourke certainly seems to feel that the murder of Bridget was not premeditated and came from some extent in the belief that she was a changeling, yet the torment she endured before her death, the brutality of her murder and the lack of support she received from her family members make this a difficult conclusion to reach today, or for that matter, for the judge in the case at the time who found all the defendants guilty.

Bourke however, is asking the reader to remember that

 Fairies belong to the margins, and so can serve as reference points and metaphors for all that is marginal in human life. Their underground existence allows them to stand for the secret, or the unspeakable

Her thoroughly researched, well-structured and thrillingly dramatic account of the life and death of Bridget Cleary places the murder in context and gives credence to its historical importance in Anglo Irish politics and the parallels with the concurrent trial of Oscar Wilde. It is a fascinating exploration of the folk beliefs of the time and a devastating reminder of the cruelty that can stem from a belief system against those we love.

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Number Read: 115

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No 679 A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

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So, it’s been three weeks since I last wrote a blog post. I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting anything since 746 Books started!

I blame a number of factors. I got some difficult health news during the last week of Reading Ireland Month and that dampened my enthusiasm greatly. I also think I needed a little bit of a break after Ireland Month anyway as it was pretty full on. Add to that the fact that I just could not settle on a book to read! I started five or so books and gave up on each one very quickly as they just weren’t grabbing my attention.

I finally decided to give Death in Belmont a go for a couple of reasons. I’ve been watching (and loving) The Jinx – the gripping HBO true crime series and also had really enjoyed Sebastian Junger’s  work on his documentary  movie Restrepo where he and the late war photographer Tim Heatherington spent a year in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair, embedded with the Second Platoon of the  173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army.

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With Restrepo and his previous book The Perfect Storm (adapted for screen also); Junger has certainly proved himself to be a talented reporter with a particular gift for engrossing narrative. He brings things closer to home in A Death in Belmont which has as its starting point a very intriguing set of coincidences.

In March of 1963, Sebastian Junger was a toddler, growing up in Belmont, a pleasant suburb of Boston, – safe, affluent and relatively crime free. Until that is an elderly housewife named Bessie Goldberg is found raped and strangled in a crime that seemed straight away to be the work of the Boston Strangler, who was wrecking havoc with his savage murderous spree in the city at large.

The starting point of the book is the fact that Al DeSalvo, the man who eventually confessed to being the Strangler, had been working at Junger’s house on the day of Bessie Goldberg’s murder and had even posed for a photograph with the baby Sebastian and his mother.

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Junger and his mother with Al DeSalvo (back in white tshirt)

 

On one occasion, he tried to lure Junger’s mother into her basement while she was alone in the house with him, but she refused. DeSalvo confessed to 13 murders, 10 of which involved the victims being strangled with their own stockings. De Salvo believed he would be found insane and confessed on the grounds that he could sell his story to the press for money to support his wife and children. Neither came to pass, and once convicted and sent to prison, he recanted his confession. He was stabbed to death in 1973 in mysterious circumstances and no one was ever convicted for his murder, although it was rumoured that his death was retaliation for the conviction of Roy Smith for the murder of Bessie Goldberg 10 years earlier.

Roy Smith is the other player in this unnerving, but ultimately unsatisfying story. Smith was a black man, a petty criminal, who had been given a job cleaning Bessie Goldberg’s house on the day of her murder and after a brief trial, was sentenced to life in prison for her murder. He always maintained his innocence even after his release and Junger clearly suggests that Smith was a convenient scapegoat for what he sees as a Strangler murder.

The mug shot of Roy Smith

The mug shot of Roy Smith

Junger does a good job of putting the lives of Bessie Goldberg, Al DeSalvo and Roy Smith into historical and social context and presenting an America where racism was rife, life was hard for those of a certain class and a President had just been shot. However, the book sets out to me a mystery with high stakes and a series of coincidences and theories don’t live up to the initial premise.

It is clear that Junger needs the reader to believe several things for the narrative tension to be maintained. Firstly that Bessie Goldberg was a victim of the Boston Strangler, then that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler and could have conceivably attacked Junger’s mother and finally that Roy Smith did not kill Bessie Goldberg. If all these theories were fact, this would be an explosive book, but they aren’t.

DeSalvo’s confessions have always been in doubt and the lack of evidence meant that although always been known as the Boston Strangler, he was never tried for those crimes, but jailed for other previous violent crimes. His body was exhumed after his death and DNA evidence only linked him to one of the Strangler murders.  Despite confessing to all the killings, he never confessed to Bessie Goldberg’s.

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Bessie Goldberg

Roy Smith never confessed to Bessie’s murder either, but questionable as his conviction was, he was at the scene prior to her death and evaded police afterwards. Junger goes to great lengths to cast Smith in a sympathetic light, even playing down an incident when Smith pulled the trigger at a shop worker’s head only for the gun to misfire. There is no doubt that for a black man in 1960s America, the chances of a fair and impartial trial were slim, but neither does Junger look in any detail at other possibilities for Bessie’s death, including the suggestion made by Smith’s defence team that her husband may have been responsible.

De Salvo leaving the police station following his arrest

De Salvo leaving the police station following his arrest

Then there is the dramatic device of placing Junger and his family in personal danger. Was Junger’s own mother at risk? On the occasion that DeSalvo asked her to come down to the basement with his, she said, with hindsight that

He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotise me.

Yet, strangely, she never told anyone about the incident at the time, neither her husband, nor DeSalvo’s boss and in fact allowed DeSalvo to continue to work unsupervised in her home.  Possibly if any of us thought we had shared our intimate space with a killer, we would re-evaluate many of or dealings with them.  However, without this incident, there really is no story here to tell. The story doesn’t link together well if you don’t go along with Junger’s theory and thus there is a loss of narrative tension. What if DeSalvo wasn’t the Boston Strangler? What if Roy Smith did kill Bessie Goldberg? What if a third person killed Bessie Goldberg? What if Ellen Junger’s reaction to DeSalvo wasn’t one of fear at the time? Any one of these and a number of other questions can unravel the book like loose knitting. In an interview, Junger has said

I literally wake up every day thinking something different about all of these issues, Smith did it, Smith didn’t do it, DeSalvo never hurt a flea, DeSalvo is a serial murderer. There is no fixed point in my mind. I wish there were.

This is the problem with the book. The initial drama cannot be maintained. When reviewing A Death in Belmont for the New York Times, Alan Dershowitz states that

When a writer has a stake in playing down coincidences and emphasizing connections, his work must be read with caution, especially when it contains no footnotes or endnotes…..Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth

I’m inclined to agree with Dershowitz. As the tension petered out I was left ultimately disappointed with the ‘thriller’ aspect of the book, however, Junger does write with a clear and strong prose style and is a master at exploring the racism and violent tensions at the heart of the mid 20th century in America.

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Number Read: 68

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