January 1961 and Pearl Gamble never makes it home from a dance at the local Orange Hall in Newry, Northern Ireland. The next morning she is found beaten, stabbed and strangled. The focus of the police investigation immediate hones in on local man Robert McGladdery, even though Pearl left the dance with another man, and returned to her neighbourhood with four others. McGladdery is a local wide boy, a natty dresser having returned from cosmopolitan London, who has a ready smile and quick humour, but somewhat of an outsider because of his illegitimate upbringing. He had been drinking most of the day before the dance, and seemed to be attracted to Pearl, taking three dances with her. Inspector Eddie McCrink has also returned from London and he is immediately uncomfortable with the investigation. It seems the local team have decided McGladdery is guilty and they’re prepared to make the evidence fit their case. And the town seems determined that he will hang for the crime. As do the authorities – the Attorney General and also the trial judge, Lord Justice Curran, who lost his own nineteen year old daughter to murder nine years previously and who has his eye on promotion to Privy Counsel.
The synopsis above sounds like a pretty good premise for a story. As I detailed earlier in the week, this is not straight fiction however. Rather it is a fictionalised version of the real Gamble/McGladdery case. Ultimately McGladdery was found guilty of Gamble’s death and he was the last person hung in Northern Ireland in 1961. McNamee then is exploring some troubling elements of the case through a fictional lens. The problem for the reader is that it’s not at all clear which elements are based on fact, which elements of the case are being challenged, and which bits are entirely fictional and imagined. Somewhat disconcertingly, large portions of the story are written in the style of a true crime book, with a dispassionate, distant and timeless voice, although in a much more sophisticated prose than in most true crime. For me, this style had the effect of leaving me outside the story, instead of being immersed in it. As a result, I struggled through a good portion of the book, though I did begin to feel more hooked in in the last third. Overall, I found this quite a difficult book to get into and I found the read quite disconcerting for the reasons above. Nevertheless, the case is an interesting one.