not a member? click here to sign up
Little Boy Blue
Based on a vicious real-life murder, Eoin McNamee’s latest crime thriller exposes the seedy underbelly of Northern Ireland.
Anne Sexton, 09 Aug 2011
On a chilly evening in 1961, 19-year-old Pearl Gamble made her way home from a dance at the Orange Lodge in Newry. The next morning her body was found. She had been beaten, strangled and stabbed, her clothes removed.
Circumstantial evidence led the police to Robert McGladdery, who had been dancing with Pearl earlier that evening. Having decided they had found their man, McGladdery was tried, convicted and has the distinction of being the last man hanged in Northern Ireland.
Eoin McNamee’s Orchid Blue uses this real-life case to construct a narrative that is part political and social commentary, part noir crime novel. It is a book that asks questions but refuses to give the reader any easy answers.
Orchid Blue operates in a world of shadows and it is not all clear whether McGladdery was guilty – or not. While McNamee doesn’t exonerate him, there is a strong suggestion that the execution may have been a miscarriage of justice.
“I had to build a fiction around it, but the actual events are all completely faithful to the original,” says McNamee.
While McNamee points to tantalising other answers, he refuses to draw conclusions.
“I wanted to point to the fact that there were ambiguities in the case against McGladdery, that there were other possibilities. It was strong in some places, weak in others – and the police didn’t consider other possibilities.
“I was halfway through the book and I felt I was missing something,” he adds. “I realised I hadn’t read all the way through Judge Curran’s summary to the jury. I went up to Belfast to read through it in the Central Library. I saw as I read through it that I had been very unfair to the man – he was actually correct in his summing up. Then I got to the end and I felt as if someone had put a cold hand down the back of my neck. The last two paragraphs of the summing up undermined McGladdery’s case completely.”
The presiding judge, Lance Curran, is key here and his name will be familiar to fans of McNamee’s last novel Blue Tango. In 1952 Lance Curran’s 19-year-old daughter, Patricia, was stabbed to death. Iain Hay Gordon was charged, found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental institution. Within a few years, he was quietly released and told to assume a different name. Nearly 50 years later Gordon took steps to clear his name and was exonerated. This should have made Curran unfit to hear McGladdery’s case, but the politically connected judge asked for it, and the old boys’ network ensured he got it.