Tuesday 20 February 2018

Review: Orchid Blue by Eoin McNamee

Faber & Faber, €13.99, Paperback

Eoin McNamee has made something of a genre of the factional retelling of famous Northern Ireland murders and murder trials -- the Shankill Butcher, Captain Robert Nairac, and, most successfully, the murder of Patricia Curran.

The 19-year-old student was a daughter of a High Court judge. Her body was found in the grounds of the family home, killed by stabbing, a crime for which a Scottish airman, Ian Hay Gordon, was found guilty, but insane, and confined to a mental hospital by a process which was many years later declared a miscarriage of justice.

The present case repeats the pattern -- the killing in Newry of a 19-year-old shop assistant, Pearl Gamble, on her way home from a dance in the local Orange Hall. Death was caused by strangulation, although there were 37 stab wounds. Despite being discovered naked, with her garments strewn across a field back to the road, she had not, in the prim language of Protestant Ulster at the time, "been interfered with".

The case has its place in legal history in that Robert McGladdery, who was found guilty of the crime, was the last man to be hanged in Northern Ireland in 1961. It was also notable in that the trial judge was Lord Chief Justice Lance Curran, whose daughter had been murdered in similar circumstances, and who, although it was not raised at the time, might have been regarded as at least emotionally conflicted.

McGladdery, a local Jack the lad, unemployed, on the dole, a sharp dresser, a good dancer, a lady's man, a fantasist who spun yarns in local pubs about his adventures in Soho, had danced three times with Pearl Gamble and was alleged to have requested the band to play 'It's Now Or Never'. Installed by the lumpish local police as the most likely suspect, and subjected to close surveillance, he delighted in the role and in leading the police a dance around Newry.

Protesting his innocence to the end, he was brought to trial on entirely circumstantial evidence, with no confession, no identification, little forensic evidence, conflicting witnesses and no established motive. Against counsel's advice, he took the stand for a disastrous cross-examination, his boon companion gave evidence for the prosecution, and the judge's summing-up removed the main plank of his defence, after which the jury took only 50 minutes to reach a unanimous guilty verdict. An appeal failed, and the minister refused to exercise clemency and McGladdery was hanged, with a prison chaplain reporting, in a strangely stilted official statement, that he had confessed his guilt at the end.

This, however, is much more than the story of a single murder. In many ways it is a sequel to the wonderful Blue Tango, McNamee's account of the murder of Patricia Curran with which he draws many parallels. In particular it enables him to revisit his obsession with the Currans, particularly the judge, and the oppressive self-righteousness of the Northern regime, where politicians exercised a sinister influence on the investigation of crime and the administration of justice, and his distaste for an approach to detection in which the police first identify the culprit and then search for the evidence on which a court will convict.

In a highly atmospheric treatment, he captures the claustrophobic intrusiveness of life in a seedy small town which has seen better days, the detritus of industrial and commercial decay, the miasma rising from the marshes, the rush to judgement and the lust for vengeance.

In revisiting the earlier murder, he manages to assign guilt to the mentally ill mother of the victim, and to implicate the judge, and with him the unionist establishment in a cover-up which resulted in the detention of an innocent man in what was later declared a serious miscarriage of justice.

There is little doubt left in the reader's mind that here too there has been a mistrial, that McGladdery, the last man to be hanged, had been hanged in error. Unfortunately, while Ian Hay Gordon was freed and finally vindicated, Robert McGladdery could not be unhanged...

Irish Independent

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