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The Blue Tango

By Eoin McNamee
Published by Faber & Faber

For his second full-length novel, after the harrowing achievement of Resurrection Man in 1994 (and not forgetting his two earlier novellas, Love in History and The Last of Deeds), Eoin McNamee ventures even further into the realm of faction. As documented by Shirley Kelly in her interview with McNamee in the last issue, The Blue Tango revisits a notoriously murky murder, and its subsequent investigation and the conviction that followed, which took place in and around Belfast nearly fifty years ago.
In the early hours of November 13th, 1952, 19-year-old Patricia Curran, daughter of Judge Lancelot Curran, Northern Ireland’s Attorney-General and later Lord Chief Justice, was found dead in the grounds of her home, The Glen, outside Whiteabbey, on the outskirts of Belfast. The body was discovered by her father and her brother Desmond, a solicitor and Moral Rearmament activist. She had been stabbed 37 times. Her mother Doris waited in the house.

 

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The ensuing investigation was led by RUC Inspector Albert McConnell, but Chief Inspector Richard Pim, in his efforts to protect the family, made things difficult for McConnell from the start, denying him permission to interview any of the surviving Currans, or to search the house. Pim pointed McConnell in the direction of a maniac, and one was sure to be found, hopefully among one of the Polish Free Army units that were stationed nearby. Come January, with no firm leads established, Pim drafted in Chief Inspector John Capstick of Scotland Yard and his assistant Detective Sergeant Denis Hawkins. McNamee renders the briefing exchange between Pim and the adulterous Essex policeman thus:

‘I rather thought that a foreigner might be involved. Stabbing is rather a foreign modus operandi, is it not, Chief Superintendent?’
‘It’s a useful thought, sir. Plenty of stabbings in London during the war. Spaniards, Arabs and the like. Stab you soon as look at you, some of them.’
‘What about Poles?’
‘The temperament is there, sir, no shadow of a doubt about it.’

A Scottish RAF serviceman, Iain Hay Gordon, was eventually charged with the crime. A shy, nervous outsider, and acquaintance of Desmond’s who had been to dinner in The Glen, he was a vulnerable target to pin it on. He signed a confession on the understanding that Capstick would withhold from his schoolteacher mother the suspicion that her son was homosexual. The confession itself was extracted by the novel technique of Capstick putting each alleged event to Gordon as a hypothesis, and when the suspect answered ‘Yes’, writing it down as fact.
Gordon pleaded guilty but insane, spent seven years in a mental hospital where he received no treatment because the Superintendent thought he was perfectly healthy, and was then released and given a job for life in Glasgow, with the proviso that he change his name and never talk about the case. When he took voluntary redundancy in 1993, he began a campaign to clear his name. Last year, the verdict against him was quashed.
All the above personages appear as characters in McNamee’s narrative, along with various other figures like journalist Harry Fergusson and Catholic bookmaker Hughes, from whom Lancelot Curran borrowed money to pay gambling debts.
As with Resurrection Man, some will complain that the characters are cardboard cut-outs, but as with that novel, depths are revealed through surfaces. Others will cavil at the indeterminate mix of fact and invention, particularly as Desmond is still alive and working as a Catholic priest in South Africa, but there are literary precedents, in Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. It is a historical novel, as distance is needed for recollection and reconciliation.
Again, as with his previous book, the prose style is reminiscent of the lapidary Puritan discourse of a morality play, a kind of latter-day Northern Catholic John Bunyan, which is ideally suited to the Manichean societal structures up there. Also striking is McNamee’s sensitivity to language register and its betrayal of social standing, as when some of the statements in the police records by soldiers read more like the product of a well-educated, middle-class professional hand. Like all true artists, McNamee takes nothing for granted at face value, and the nuances of the social pecking order are perfectly rendered. ‘Authority’ is one of the most frequently recurring words in the text.
The atmosphere builds with the mounting weight of suppressed evidence against the family itself. Why were Patricia’s hat and bag found neatly stacked some distance from her remains? Why, after a wet night, were they perfectly dry? Why, if the hat was pinned and difficult to take off, did she remove it? Why did Lancelot Curran phone around her friends to find out where she was three-quarters of an hour after the body had been found? Why did Pim suppress records of these conversations? When the house was sold four years later, and a huge bloodstain discovered in an upstairs bedroom after a carpet was lifted, why did the police do nothing when they were called? There is also Gordon’s part in his own accusation and prosecution, through looking for an alibi before he was even under suspicion, and getting a fellow serviceman to lie for him. Patricia herself haunts the narrative in a ghostly fashion, a 1950’s version of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, another instance of the good girl/bad girl archetype. Some say she was promiscuous, married men and the like, and got no more than she deserved, while this is balanced by Hughes’ recounting of her voluntary charity work in the area, recipients of which included his own widowed mother.
This reads like an x-rayed tabloid, a record of gossip, innuendo and scapegoating. It is a reminder of the bad old days when sex was dirty, and married and missionary was the only game in town, and you could be blackmailed and destroyed for doing anything else, and all was ‘family values’, and men spoke about ‘the ride’. Maybe some men can’t enjoy sex unless it is ‘dirty’: that’s why they invented sexual morality. But, as we’ve discovered, morality need not apply solely to sexuality, and this tale of ex-public schoolboy men-in-suits rallying around to cover-up for and protect one of their own is something that still goes on, and perhaps always will.
At the time of writing The Blue Tango is on the Booker long list. A book of this poetic intensity and precision would be a worthy contender on the short list, and it secures McNamee’s position among the most talented younger novelists on this island.

First published in Books Ireland


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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