Book review: Blue is the Night

Eoin McNamee Faber, €19.40
THERE’S A short line in Eoin McNamee’s Blue is the Night that could serve as a calling card for the trilogy it completes. 

“Dark blue, very sharp,” is the description of the eyes of Thomas Cutbush, a suspect for Jack the Ripper killings, on his admission to Broadmoor Hospital in 1891.

McNamee’s ‘Blue’ trilogy — The Blue Tango was published in 2001, and Orchid Blue in 2010 — is distinctively noir, but shaded by nuance, and with more depth and breadth than conventional noir — more dark blue than plain black, and very sharp indeed.

The trilogy largely concerns itself with the historical figure of Sir Lancelot Curran, a brilliant and ruthless lawyer and politician, who became attorney general and a member of Parliament.

Set in 1949, Blue is the Night takes us back to the case that made Curran’s name, when he prosecuted the murder trial of Robert Taylor, a Protestant man accused of killing a Catholic woman, Mary McGowan.

While the high-profile case had social, political and religious overtones particular to post-WWII Northern Ireland, Blue is the Night is not a traditional courtroom drama.

Around this main narrative strand, and between the past and the historical present, McNamee draws together threads from the previous two novels.

He also weaves in other plots, including the brutal murder of Curran’s own daughter, Patricia, outside the family home in 1952, and the possibility that Curran’s wife, Doris, was responsible.

The story is narrated by the fictional Harry Ferguson, Curran’s right-hand man, confidante and political fixer.

Ferguson, a pragmatic man in his public utterances, is given to philosophical wanderings in the privacy of his own mind, thus allowing McNamee to extrapolate from a historical crime an investigation into the murkier depths of human nature.

“If wrong had a human form,” is Ferguson’s verdict on Robert Taylor, the accused in the murder trial, and this opens up the story to the possibility of the existence of pure evil.

The suggestion is amplified by Doris Curran’s experience in Broadmoor Hospital, where she was reared, and where she encountered the Jack the Ripper suspect Cutbush, and may, or may not — McNamee’s storytelling does not lend itself to absolutes — have absorbed a murderous insanity by a kind of spiritual osmosis.

It’s a theme that crops up again and again in the book, from Jack the Ripper and Ferguson’s time working at the Nuremburg Trials, to Patricia Curran’s referencing of wolves in the forest.

This brings to mind the original, darker versions of the old European ‘fairytales’, those Charles Perrault tales that served as cautionary fables for the unknowable malign forces that lurked beyond the flickering lights of the village.

At one point, Ferguson visits a Belfast museum and sees the mummy Takabuti, and is moved by its aura of ‘ancient malice’.

Nailed to the page by McNamee’s at times brutally stark prose, the story gradually reveals the extent to which the characters, despite their intelligence, ambition and ruthlessness, are helplessly bound by forces much greater than they, by a fate decided upon long before they were born.

That’s a rather lurid claim in a novel based on historical fact, but McNamee is hugely persuasive, even as the story grows increasingly Gothic in tone.

Sympathetic to even his most callous characters, McNamee has crafted a beguiling, gripping tale that deserves to be considered a masterpiece of Irish noir fiction, regardless of whether its hue is black or the darkest blue.


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