Faber and Faber (2010), 298 pages
The words “miscarriage of justice” have a certain sound to Irish ears. They conjure images of The Guilford Four and The Birmingham Six. Confessions beaten out of innocent men in the cold cells of south of England police stations. They represent a double injustice, innocent men’s lives stolen from them while the guilty do not answer for their crimes. I recently watched West of Memphis, the astonishing documentary about The West Memphis Three. Three young men who don’t fit in are slowly ground down by the workings of the police and the legal system. There is always pressure on the police to secure a conviction especially when a murder has been committed. Society wants to feel safe again, to see that justice has been done. But sometimes the police and the prosecutors prize putting someone on trial, gaining a conviction, over taking the time to find the real guilty party or even leaving the case unsolved.
Orchid Blue is a sequel, of sorts, to Eoin McNamee’s Booker Prize nominated The Blue Tango. The Blue Tango detailed the murder of Patrica Curran, the daughter of Northern Irish High Court judge Lancelot Curran. The plot of The Blue Tango followed the conviction of Iain Hay Gordon for Patricia’s murder. Gordon spent 7 years in a mental asylum for the crime but his conviction was quashed in 2001. The behaviour of the Curran family suggests that Patrica’s mother had a part to play in the murder and that Judge Curran might have been involved in covering up details about the case. Orchid Blue follows the details surrounding the murder of Pearl Gamble after a dance near Newry in 1961. Robert McGladdery is the prime suspect and he will be tried and convicted for capital murder with Lancelot Curran as the judge. McGladdery will be the last person hanged in Ireland (I’m not giving anything away here as the blurb on the back of the book gives these details!). Pearl Gamble is 19, the same age as Patricia Curran when she died, but Judge Curran doesn’t see any conflict of interest in judging a case so similar to his daughter’s. There is political pressure for a hanging and Curran knows that a guilty vaerdict will improve his chances of being selected for the Privy Council of Northern Ireland.
McNamee’s style is terse, the prose clipped and functional. He expertly maps the geography of the places he describes, his sentences like contours on a map. There are two languages in his novels, the language of everyday discourse and another hidden language. This second language is spoken behind closed doors, in police stations, and amongst the political elites. There is a hypocracy at play in the province, certain things, whilst not approved of will be tolerated once they’re not advertised in public. Judge Curran and his election agent, Ferguson, know how to play this game. Patricia’s Curran’s murder isn’t spoken of, nor is Judge Curran’s wife’s incarceration in a mental asylum, except when her situation poses a threat to the established order. McGladdery doesn’t know how to play this game. On his return from London he dresses in more flamboyant clothing than is usual. He takes up bodybuilding. He is noticed, people think he has moved above his station. Similarly the investigating detective, Eddie McCrink, has returned from London. He pokes into the Curran case, as the case progesses he isn’t convinced of McGladdery’s guilt. There is a sense of the man being made to fit the crime rather than the evidence fitting the man.
McNamee is strong in eliciting the private emotions of his characters. The reader can sympathise with several points of view. McNamee is cleary not convinced of McGladdery’s guilt and suggests that McGladdery’s friend, Will Copeland or the unknown driver of a car seen near the crime scene could be responsible for the crime. The novel is set up with a series of couples and their relationships; McGladdrey and Copeland, McCrink and his lover Margaret, Pearl and her (female) friend Ronnie, Curran and Ferguson. All of the relationships are dysfunctional in some way as jealousy and power struggles make true love and respect difficult, if not impossible. Likewise the state’s relationship to the individual is dysfunctional. The workings of power are opaque. Johnston, one of the prosecuting policemen, dresses impecibly in his full dress uniform in court but denies putting a gun to McGladdrey’s head to force him to go to the police station. The image on the surface is used to hide the dark workings beneath. As in miscarriage of justice cases the state knows that its evidence won’t be questioned, especially where the accused is a working-class troublemaker.
Unlike The Blue Tango there are weaknesses in Orchid Blue. The Curran case was a clear miscarriage of justice, this is less clear in the Pearl Gamble murder. McNamee presents a convincing argument that political considerations insured McGladdrey’s execution, that Judge Curran directed the jury in a way that made an acquittal unlikely, and that McGladdery (being born out of wedlock to a poor mother) made a fall guy for whom few tears would be shed. The evidence is entirely circumstantial and the witness evidence doesn’t completely tally. Today it is far less likely that McGladdrey would have been found guilty unless there was forensic evidence to tie him to the body and impossible for him to be executed. However there is no compelling piece of evidence to suggest that McGladdery definitely didn’t commit the murder. The movements between the past and the present, such as when the author is looking up microfiche files of old newspapers, jar and seem unncessary. If McNamee is trying to convey his belief that the McGladdrey case is a miscarriage of justice that has analogues in the present, he doesn’t entirely succeed. McNamee dismisses McGladdrey’s supposed last minute confession to the crime and believes it was composed by the police. Maybe McGladdrey is completely innocent and the state has succeeded in it’s aim of making this reader believe that he could be guilty. Politics in Northern Ireland can be a dirty murderous business and the shocking revelations about the Force Research Unit and, more recently the Military Reaction Force, have shown that the Northern Irish state has been willing to sacrafice innocent life for it’s twisted interpretation of the greater good. In this case I’m not fully convinced by McNamee’s counter-argument against the state.
Below is a slideshow about the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast where McGladdery was executed. There were a total of 16 executions in the prison. The gaol closed in 1996 and is now open to visitors.