Star rating – 8/10
The latest real life crime/fiction fusion from Eoin McNamee, ‘Orchid Blue’, is really a sequel to his excellent 2000 novel ‘The Blue Tango’, which was deservedly Booker long listed. In both McNamee takes famous criminal cases from the annals of 1950’s and 60’s Northern Ireland, and brings them to life in a wonderful yet disturbing way, and in the telling, brings a powerful social and political commentary into play.
The story starts with the brutal murder of a young girl, Pearl Gamble, who was on her way home from a local dance in Newry. Without much in the way of what we might call real investigation, the local police immediately point the finger at a local lad, Robert McGladdery. But McCrink, the detective who is assigned to the case having just returned from London with his tail between his legs, smells a very strong rat.
The link with ‘The Blue Tango’ starts to become clear with the judge who is assigned to try McGladdery. For Judge Curran is the same man whose own teenage daughter’s murder was the subject of this earlier book, and McNamee suggests here that the two cases are very much linked, not by having the same murderer, but by the thirst of Judge Curran to avenge his daughter’s death. He wants someone to pay for his pain, and McGladdery will do very well. And the death penalty was still legal in Northern Ireland at this time.
McNamee has a wonderful writing style, and he brings to life the characters, and also recreates the seedy, murky world of local police and politics in Northern Ireland at the time with great detail. You can almost smell the muddy field and septic tank he describes. He gives voice to working class youngsters who have no real life chances to speak of, in particular Robert McGladdery, who is portrayed as an enigmatic and enquiring person, but a victim of class and circumstance.
The book deserves all the plaudits that its predecessor gained. McNamee has a wonderful way of uniting truth with fiction, and giving us a window into the corruption and injustice at play. And it is also a great crime story, although not so much of a whodunit, and a who didn’t do it.