Murder, he wrote: Eoin McNamee on his new novel and mixing fact and fiction
The Northern Ireland writer tells Ivan Little how a childhood discovery of a faded newspaper clipping about the 1952 case has fired his imagination
He's an award-winning author who has written best-selling novels based around the gruesome slayings of the infamous Shankill Butchers as well as the mysterious murder of judge's daughter Patricia Curran and the life and death of undercover soldier Capt Robert Nairac, but Co Down-born Eoin McNamee has revealed his next work will be about ... Alex Higgins, the late Belfast snooker star.
Even though he's been fighting off a nasty bout of Asian flu picked up during a trip last week to China – where local people watched his movie about Lenny Murphy and his killer gang – Eoin can still muster enough vocal power to explain what on the surface appears to be a dramatic departure in subject matter.
He says: "Something interests me about Alex's dark charisma and that whole self-destruct thing. I've heard snooker players like Steve Davis say they were frightened of him. I enjoyed watching him playing and people always had their eyes fixed on Alex even when he wasn't at the table."
Eoin says he's still waiting to find a way into the Higgins story. "But there's always a moment when the story, the whole concept, comes to me."
His books are generally works of 'faction' – fictional novels which include massive factual content and references to true-life events and real people.
His 2004 book, The Ultras, which had murdered SAS soldier Captain Robert Nairac as its central character, dealt with the covert war in Northern Ireland "and everything that was hidden from us" during the Troubles.
Eoin's acclaimed trilogy, Blue, is rooted in stories associated with the famous Curran family, whose teenage daughter Patricia was murdered 61 years ago – a killing which has never lost its intrigue for people in Northern Ireland. Or for Eoin.
Patricia was the daughter of prominent judge and unionist MP, Sir Lancelot Curran, and her body was found with 37 stab wounds in the driveway of her home at Whiteabbey in 1952.
Scottish RAF man Iain Hay Gordon was convicted of the killing, only to have it overturned in 2000.
Eoin stumbled upon coverage of the Curran murder in his childhood. He says: "I can remember finding a copy of a newspaper lining the drawers at home and I read the story of Patricia's murder, which was accompanied by that iconic head and shoulders picture of her.
"There was just something about it. You could have taken the story and put it in Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles and you would have had the classic American film noir. That's what gripped me about it. That and the fact that it was unresolved and it never will be resolved.
"The Currans were all fascinating figures in their own rights – almost theatrical. And then there was this beautiful, doomed figure of Patricia and the wrongly convicted man.
"I found a way into that story after hearing that Iain Hay Gordon used to whistle the tune of Blue Tango when he was being interrogated. That gave me the title for the book."
It was only after writing The Blue Tango – which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize – that Eoin decided to pen a follow-up called Blue Orchid, his fictionalised account of the trial of the last man to be hanged here, Robert McGladdery, who was convicted of the murder of teenager Pearl Gamble near Newry in 1961.
Eoin says: "After Blue Tango, I found out that Lancelot Curran was the judge who convicted McGladdery and sentenced him to death for the murder of a 19-year-old girl only nine years after the murder of his own 19-year-old daughter."
Published this month, the third book in the trilogy is Blue Is The Night, which again tells a fictional story – of Lancelot Curran's role as prosecutor in the notorious 'Robert the Painter' case in 1949, which has been described as one of the most blatant miscarriages of justice in Northern Ireland.
It involved the trial and subsequent release of house painter Robert Taylor, who had been accused of murdering a woman in north Belfast but got off on a technicality.
Eoin, who recently won a Major Individual Artist award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland worth £15,000, says: "I don't think it's a subjective opinion to say that the legal system in the north wasn't in a great state before 1968 and didn't hold up too well after that."
Even though the Currans have haunted him for decades, the last part of the trilogy is the full stop to their stories, according to Eoin, who was born in Kilkeel in 1961, one of four sons of a solicitor father and an art teacher mother.
One of his brothers is now a property developer; one is a barrister and the other drives a school bus for special needs children around Newry.
But Eoin says he was always a reader. "I wasn't a solitary child but I was quite content in my own company. Probably the best way to put it is that I lived inside my own head. I spent a lot of time wandering the fields around Kilkeel and down by the harbour."
One of his earliest influences was CS Lewis and he had a deep affection for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but ironically it wasn't until a few years ago that Eoin discovered that the Belfast author's mental pictures of Narnia had been inspired by holidays in Rostrevor, by the Cooley mountains and by the Mournes.
"I was brought up beside Narnia and I didn't even know it," says Eoin. "It was the landscape of my childhood."
His secondary education took him to three different schools, where the dream of becoming a writer blossomed. And after his studies were over, he took himself off to lead the Bohemian lifestyle of an aspiring writer in the Mournes, living on his own in a house he borrowed from an uncle.
But reality swiftly dawned. "I realised that a writer's job was actually hard work and that it wasn't something that just happened to you in a cottage up a mountain.
"I lacked the maturity and the discipline but I learnt by default about what not to do," he says. "I discovered, for example, that if you let your pals come up on motorbikes and drink beer with you, that you weren't going to get a day's work done afterwards. But that time was important in its own way.
"I was developing a writer's eye," says Eoin.
In the 1980s, as the Troubles and the hunger strikes sparked mayhem on the streets, Eoin decided to go to Dublin to study for a law degree. "But it wasn't so much to get out of the north, it was more to do with the fact that I'd gone to so many schools, I thought I would know everyone if I went to Belfast to study.
"It was a bit of spreading my wings. But it did give me a different perspective as well."
Even though he devoted all his energies at university to his legal studies, Eoin says the 'monkey on his back' – the writing – wouldn't leave him alone.
"I went to New York for a year to complete the unfinished business of my writing. But I came back and I was on the dole before doing the odd job here and there and it was three years before I had my first book published." The novella, The Last of Deeds, was what he calls a dark sectarian-tainted romance set in an imagined Kilkeel and was nominated for an Irish Times literature award.
But it was his debut full-length novel, Resurrection Man, which brought the still largely-unknown writer the sort of national and international attention that other writers wait a lifetime to achieve. And sometimes never do.
The story was based on the barbaric UVF killers, the Shankill Butchers, who murdered upwards of 30 people, mainly but not exclusively Catholics, in the 1970s and 1980s. Eoin says: "I wanted a way to write about the Troubles that didn't follow in the narrative that everyone was using. I wanted to see it differently. That particular book took me half my life to discover but it took me about 18 months to actually write it."
Eoin also wrote the screenplay of The Resurrection Man movie which came several years after the book, with Stuart Townsend in the main role. Jimmy Ellis, who died this month, was also in the film, along with Jimmy Nesbitt.
The reaction to the film disappointed Eoin, though he adds: "It was more frustrating than wounding, but every strand of political opinion seemed to have something negative to say about it. But looking back, if we offended all those people, we must have been doing something right. But it was an art film. It wasn't Die Hard 3 or anything like that."
Resurrection Man undoubtedly opened doors for Eoin.
Eoin, his artist wife Marie Caulfield, who's also from Kilkeel, and their two children – a 17-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son – now live in Skreen in Sligo. "We are between the mountains and the sea and someone pointed out to me that was exactly the same as in Co Down, only now we face the US, not England."
Eoin, who also writes novels under the pseudonym of John Creed, works from home. And he sticks to a routine. "I get the kids off to school around 7am, head to the beach and then start writing about 8am. I usually set myself a number of words to write."
In his books, Eoin's writing process begins at the end. "I know I'm ready to start when I can write the last few pages. But I haven't got to that stage yet with Alex Higgins."
At the moment, Eoin is also writing for a Welsh TV detective series called Hinterland, which is made all the more remarkable because all the speaking scenes are filmed twice – once in English and once in Welsh – for different versions of the show.
Eoin, who has also written North of Riga – a Belfast-produced Radio 4 play which he describes as a contemporary fairy tale set in Kilkeel – is now enjoying worldwide success.
Last year, he was in Atlanta, Georgia, to see an interactive stage version of his fantasy adventure novel, The Navigator, in a production which combined puppetry, video, live performances and music in a huge abandoned munitions factory.
He's also just back from a literary festival which involved him travelling to three cities in China to read extracts from his books.
And it was Beijing that Resurrection Man was screened in, a room above a large bar with an audience made up of Irish ex-pats and Chinese people who had absolutely no idea that anything like the Shankill Butchers murders had ever happened in Ireland.
"It was completely, completely surreal," says Eoin. "Especially to see Jimmy Ellis in full flow in Beijing ..."
* Blue Is The Night by Eoin McNamee, Faber & Faber, £12.99
The problem with 'faction'
They say fact is stranger than fiction and Eoin McNamee is a contemporary master of combining the two in his novels.
'Faction', as the genre is known, is a recognised form of literature or filmmaking that treats real people or events as if they were fictional, or uses real people or events as essential elements in an otherwise fictional rendition.Alex Haley's epic story of black slavery in America, Roots: The Saga of An America Family, is an example.
'Faction' has its critics – is it ever right to add another layer of fiction to a real event already lost in numerous theories, such as the murder of Patricia Curran. But McNamee has defended himself and the genre.
In a review of another piece of faction a few years ago, he wrote: "There are dangers – a suggestion that there is something almost immoral about the enterprise. Playing with people's lives, that kind of thing. But a writer isn't there to create morality tales or to give a good example. All that matters is that the work is good".
McNamee's gripping Blue trilogy features the still unsolved murder of judge's daughter Patricia Curran, aged 19. The daughter of judge and Unionist MP, Sir Lancelot Curran, was found to have been stabbed 37 times at her Whiteabbey home, Co Antrim, one evening in 1952.
Her body was found by her 26-year-old brother Desmond, who went on to become a Jesuit missionary priest.
Suspicion was focused on a young Scottish RAF man, Scot Iain Hay Gordon, who was eventually convicted of her murder but was cleared by judicial review in 2000.