Book Of A Lifetime: The Bishop and Other Stories, By Anton Chekhov

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The Independent Culture

A friend gave it to me. A 1930 Chatto & Windus edition of 'The Bishop and Other Stories' by Anton Chekhov. He had bought it for a few pounds in a second-hand shop and he knew what he'd got. When I opened to the bookplate on the inside cover, I felt as if someone had placed an icy hand on the back of my neck.

The bookplate, dated 1950, showed a diabolic imp sitting on a book. Underneath the imp is printed, "THIS BOOK BELONGS TO", and beneath it, in careful grammar-school handwriting, is "Curran, The Glen, Whiteabbey".

In 1952, Judge Lance Curran's 19-year-old daughter, Patricia, was murdered in the grounds of their home, The Glen in Whiteabbey, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Curran`s behaviour on the night of his daughter`s murder suggests cover-up, scandal, white mischief at large in the shadows. Iain Hay Gordon was convicted of the murder, the conviction being overturned in 2000.

Nine years later, Lance Curran sat in judgement on Robert McGladdery, on trial for his life for the murder of another 19-year-old girl, Pearl Gamble. McGladdery was hanged in December 1961. The evidence was circumstantial and McGladdery maintained his innocence to the end. There did not seem to be any contemporary disquiet as to why the father of a murdered girl should be allowed to sit in judgement over a man accused of murdering another 19-year-old girl in similar circumstances.

I have been writing about the Currans for 25 years. Patricia, the independent and beautiful daughter; Doris, the mother, brought up in Broadmoor as the daughter of the superintendant, ending her days in Holywell Mental hospital, that dark equilibrium the only one she found. Desmond was the proselytising barrister turned Catholic, then turned missionary priest. And standing over, and apart from them, the Judge, Lance Curran.

The Chekhov stories are full of light in darkness. Flickering votives, dim lanterns, crowds gaping at the new electric light in Erakin's grocery store. I'm haunted by the idea of the Currans reading Chekhov. The themes of venal provincialism. Of a class teetering on the brink of catastrophe. The Glen could be one of Chekhov`s country houses. The Reform Club, where Lance Curran gambled with the deeds of the Glen, the cast of card sharps and scoundrels, belongs. The Currans could easily number themselves among Chekhov's lost bourgeoisie, and you have to wonder if they knew it. But it`s not the correspondences with Chekhov`s provincials that disturbs. The book itself troubles me, the actual object with its foxed covers and yellowing paper, its little devil bookplate and careful penmanship. It sits on the windowsill in front of me when I work and I picked it up often when I was writing 'Orchid Blue'. I wondered whether, after years of my haunting the family in words, the Currans had stretched out an icy hand to me.

Eoin McNamee's novel 'Orchid Blue' is published by Faber & Faber

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