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Blue is the Night, by Eoin McNamee

review published on January 14, 2014. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

Blue is the Night is the closing chapter of Eoin McNamee’s loose Blue trilogy. Across three books, McNamee has through dreamlike imagery and potent prose, examined one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious unsolved crimes. That crime is the murder of nineteen year-old Patricia Curran, daughter of Attorney General Lancelot Curran. In 1952, Patricia was found dead in some bushes near her home, having been stabbed 37 times. Though she had been stabbed repeatedly, there were no bloodstains near the body. The family home was not searched until a week later. In the decades since the murder, suspicion has fallen, among other places, on Patricia’s family. That suspicion is explored again at length by McNamee in Blue is the Night.

In Blue is the Night, Lance Curran acts for the prosecution in what should be an open-and-shut case. A Protestant decorator named Robert Taylor has violently slain one of his Catholic customers, Mary McGowan. Curran is intent on seeing justice done, despite the sectarian violence that threatens to follow if Taylor is found guilty. His fixer, Harry Ferguson, is focussed on furthering Curran’s career, and sets about undermining Curran’s efforts in line with the wishes of the Establishment.

The first in the trilogy, Blue Tango, was long listed for the Booker in 2001; evidence enough that this is no ordinary crime series. A speculative novel drawing on true events, Blue is the Night doesn’t concern itself with puzzle-solving and killer-unmasking. In the Taylor case, the identity of the guilty party is well documented, and in Patricia’s case, the killer remains unknown. No, here McNamee is about examining moral, psychological and sexual tensions in mid-twentieth century Northern Ireland.

In reality, the post-mortem revealed that Patricia Curran died a virgin. Nonetheless, a fog of innuendo and rumour swirls about her. Her own mother, Doris, is convinced Patricia is “fast,” and ceaselessly accuses her of this, as do others. Throughout the book, McNamee draws a link between sex and insanity, pitting the sexual urge against the puritanical mores of society. The id and super-ego bludgeon each other on the battleground of the ego, leaving girls’ minds fragmented and fractured.

In the most powerful scenes, Doris Curran’s madness is examined. McNamee brings us into Doris’ mind, a place where the voices in her head are trusted more than anyone in the external world. Though they are furtive, conspiratorial and even homicidal, much the same could be said of the real world characters, who offer little to recommend them over the voices.

McNamee’s style is highly distinctive, with poetic flourishes jostling for position with pared-back statements of fact. Witness this opening paragraph –

The Glen, Whiteabbey. Lancelot Curran had bought the Glen shortly after the trial of Robert Taylor for the murder of Mary McGowan in 1949. No record had been kept as to the builder of the house or the year of its construction… the name of the house had been intended to convey the sense of some Arcadian setting, leafy and gentle. But the glens recalled by the Scottish lowlanders who had settled this coast were not Arcadian. There were places of ambuscade and murder. Genocidal shadows lingered.

McNamee’s sentences are frequently bewitching to read, and for this reason they sometimes suffer from that rare quality of being too perfect. Things of beauty in themselves, they can distract from the narrative with their demands to be re-read. Fortunately, unlike most crime Blue is the Night is not primarily about narrative, but mood.

Blue is the Night warrants comparison with Peace and Ellroy not just for the factual subject matter, but for the quality of the writing too. Clearly meticulously researched, but still filled with art and atmosphere, this is a fine achievement.

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