‘Everyone is guilty and punishment is inevitable’ – Orchid Blue by Eoin MacNamee

In the early 1960s in Northern Ireland, Judge Lance Curran presides over the murder trial of Robert McGladdery,  accused of killing a 19 year-old girl in a way remarkably similar to the murder of the Judge’sown daughter nine years earlier. A detective, Eddie McCrink, is brought from London to oversee the investigation, and he helplessly witnesses the railroading of McGladdery towards the gallows. McGladdery is a spiv already soiled by his time in London, where he visited the Raymond Revuebar and returned with ‘fancy London duds’and a stash of pornography. According to the local moral code, he deserves to be hung for the cut of his suit, if nothing else.

Based on the true story of the last man to be hung in Northern Ireland, there is never any doubt that McGladdery will die for a crime he did not commit. The plot of the novel is as predestined as a medieval theologian could wish for; McCrink’s real investigation is to judge the judges (quite literally as McCrink comes dangerously close to unraveling the mystery of the murder of Judge Curran’s daughter).

Like the novels of James Ellroy and David Peace, there is little whodunnit because everyone is guilty and punishment is inevitable. The prison chaplain who accompanies McGladdery to his death says, ‘we are all condemned persons in the eyes of God’.  Like David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet and James Ellroy’s LA Quartet, Eoin McNamee’s achievement is to fully evoke a society through all its layers and to locate the atmosphere of a place through the ages, a psychogeography made manifest in his characters. The town of Newry becomes ‘a place of blood feuds. Of wolf-prowled outlands’. Eoin McNamee’s heightened language and rhythmic sentences coin phrases that immediately capture the threadbare glamour of the early 1960s, wartime rationing is a recent memory, and a rigid Puritanism is wonderfully captured in the Biblical cadence of the language of characters who sound like recently defrocked preachers.  Their moral certainties are a ramshackle barrier against the conspiracies being planned among the judges, lawyers and politicians.

McNamee’s Northern Ireland is a convincing place – it has a superstitious and priest-ridden atmosphere that could be placed in any century since the Dark Ages, where the criminal justice system is ancillary to the Old Testament. To be compared to James Ellroy without embarrassment, a writer needs the capacity to imagine the worst of his society and the ability to  redeem it through the historical perspective of his writing. McNamee succeeds with a descriptive depth, imaginative scope and empathetic characterisation that are the equal of both Ellroy and Don DeLillo.

Any cop? If any further praise for Orchid Blue is needed, it is to compare McNamee to a very different Irish writer, Seamus Heaney. Eoin McNamee’s language is as vivid, bringing the perspective of centuries to a single murder case, and leaves the reader with the feelings once invoked by Heaney: ‘I will feel lost, unhappy and at home’.

James Doyle


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.