Stuart Neville (stuartneville.com)
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)
It is 1963 and Ireland is preparing for an historic visit from US president, John F. Kennedy. The death of the third foreign national, a German businessman, in the space of a handful of days could threaten not only the presidential visit, but the relationship between Ireland the US; the dead men are all former Nazis living in Ireland with the blessing of the Irish government. They are all also overt warnings to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando and personal friend of the Irish Minister for Justice, Charles Haughey, that he is no longer safe. Albert Ryan, an officer of the Directorate of Intelligence and former member of Britain’s Armed Forces, is seconded to Haughey and charged with finding out who is carrying out these attacks.
So begins Lieutenant Albert Ryan’s investigation, and Stuart Neville’s fourth novel. Along the way we’ll encounter a host of former Nazis and French nationalists, Mossad agents, ex-army mercenaries, and the beautiful Celia Hume, as we watch Albert Ryan make his way carefully through the minefield that lies between duty and morality. Ratlines is, in many ways, a major departure for Stuart Neville. His first standalone novel, it is also the first not set in post-Troubles Belfast. Many of the themes he explores in his first three novels, though – the deep political and religious differences that divide Ireland in two being the most obvious example – are still very much in evidence here, if seen from a much different viewpoint than before.
Ryan is an interesting character – a Protestant from a small Monaghan town, he crossed the border during the Second World War and signed up with the British Army. To many of his countrymen, he is seen as a traitor and lickspittle, and this has repercussions for his family that he could probably never have foreseen; even in 1963, his parents are still dealing with the fallout of that rash decision. Twenty years later, he is a career soldier, albeit now working for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence, so he comes across as something of an innocent, a man very much out of touch with the modern workings of the world. No street-wise, wise-cracking detective here; think mid-Twentieth Century Jack Reacher, and you’re probably not too far off the mark.
Several of the characters – Haughey, Skorzeny – are modelled on real people and Neville’s narrative grows from a single fact – that Skorzeny spent some years living in Ireland with the permission of the Irish government – into a complex, engaging and plausible story in the vein of Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil. As the story progresses, Ryan’s chain of command becomes less clear, and it’s difficult for the reader to keep track of who he is now working for, or what promises he has made. This is a deliberate move on the author’s part, and is backed up by Ryan’s internal struggle between what he is employed to do – in this instance, protect the life of a famous war criminal – and what he feels is right – the expulsion of this man and all his kind from his country, exposing the corruption within the government at the same time. When it becomes apparent that there is also a lot of money at stake, it’s one more element to keeping the reader guessing just what Ryan’s intentions are.
At the heart of the novel is a knot of political tensions that shows a complex, and sometimes schizophrenic, side to Ireland. Tensions between Ireland and America on the eve of the presidential visit; potential tensions between Ireland and the fledgling Israeli state once Mossad discover the country is harbouring Nazi war criminals; the age-old tensions between Ireland and Britain that inevitably result in sectarian bigotry and outright violence. There is an excellent passage early in the novel, as Ryan thinks back to his days as a young boy working in his father’s shop, that shows how dementedly nationalistic the Irish can often be.
Would de Valera…side with Chamberlain? If it came to it, would he ask his fellow Irishmen to fight alongside the British?
Unthinkable, some would say. Old Dev would never sell his people out to the Brits.
But that Hitler, others would say, he’s bad news…
But he’s just a good nationalist, like us, looking out for his own people. Just like Old Dev did, like Pearse and Connolly did in 1916.
As a whole, the novel works very well. The ratlines of the title serve to tie several different stories together, and make sense of the many different groups trying to get their hands on Otto Skorzeny. It’s a cleverly plotted fiction built upon a solid and well-researched factual base. Part spy novel, part detective story, part examination of Ireland’s role in post-War Europe, Neville also manages to find a nice balance of action to keep the story moving quickly without losing any of its intelligence.
I’ve been a big fan of Stuart Neville since I got my hands on an early copy of his first novel The Twelve (The Ghosts of Belfast in the US). While I enjoyed the second and third parts of what turned out to be a loosely-defined trilogy (you can find my review of his third novel, Stolen Souls, here), neither quite lived up to the early promise of that sensational debut. Ratlines is, without a doubt, a return to form, proving beyond a doubt that Neville is more than a one-trick pony. His best novel since The Twelve, Ratlines takes Neville out of the post-Troubles niche and deals with subject matter that should open his work to a much wider audience than would previously have been interested. If you haven’t yet tried this young man’s work, Ratlines is an excellent place to start.
Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)
Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)
Released: 26 January 2012
Stuart Neville fairly burst onto the crime fiction scene in the middle of 2009 with his first novel, The Twelve (released later that year in the US under the title The Ghosts of Belfast). The novel, bearing high praise from James Ellroy, occupied a similar space to the novels of John Connolly – that fine line between crime and supernatural fiction – dealing with an ex-paramilitary haunted by the ghosts of the twelve people he had killed during his career. Collusion followed a year later, focusing on policeman Jack Lennon who, while not haunted in the traditional sense, had more than his fair share of demons. Lennon is once again centre-stage for the events of Neville’s third novel, the dark and oppressive Stolen Souls.
Galya Petrova is a nineteen-year-old Ukrainian lured to Ireland by the promise of well-paid work as a nanny and English teacher. After working on a mushroom farm, she is chosen and taken to Belfast where she is pressed into service as a prostitute. On her first night she cuts the throat of a man who turns out to be the brother of a Lithuanian mob boss. Before the night is out, three men are dead, Galya Petrova is in the hands of a man with less than honourable intentions, and Arturas Strazdas – a man who has built an empire on drugs and prostitution – is leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to get vengeance for his dead brother. Enter Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, a man who wants to spend a quiet Christmas with his daughter, and who finds himself in the middle of what looks like a gang war that is only just kicking off.
Neville takes us back to the familiar territory of his earlier novels, and into the bleak world of Jack Lennon as he navigates life in post-Troubles Belfast. Lennon doesn’t have much going for him – he’s a Catholic who joined the police force at a time when doing so was frowned upon at best; he formed a relationship with a young woman who turned out to be related to one of the leaders of a local Republican paramilitary organisation and ran when he got her pregnant. Now, eight years later, he is struggling to balance his career and his homelife, beset on all sides by enemies: his once-friend Dan Hewitt is working behind the scenes to make his work-life miserable, while his daughter’s aunt is constantly on the phone trying to talk him into handing custody of the child over to her mother’s family.
This is a bleak and violent novel, mirroring the situation in which Lennon finds himself. It takes place over the course of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the unexpected snow which blankets the city adding to the sense of oppression and entrapment. Belfast itself is an important character part of the novel, bringing a unique atmosphere to the story. There is the sense that it’s a city not well-liked by any of the characters, natives and foreigners alike:
Herkus had liked Belfast at first, but now it grated on him. The rain, the small-mindedness, the damned pompous self-importance of its people who thought their petty little war was more important than anyone else’s.
Beneath the surface of the city, a feeling that Neville captures and expresses perfectly, is the threat of a violence that could be ancient history but is more likely lying dormant, awaiting an opportunity to return:
‘Or maybe Sam and the foreigner killed Tomas, and someone else took exception to that and held them to account.’
‘Just like the good old days,’ Lennon said.
There is a beauty to Neville’s writing that shines through the violent, everyday subject matter. In some ways, Galya and Lennon are very similar people, both fitting the title of the book. Galya has been forced into a life of prostitution with no way of ever repaying her debts and returning home to her family, trapped in the soul-destroying life that others have chosen for her. Lennon’s suffering is, for the most part, self-inflicted and it seems there can be no way out for him either. Instead he moves through the city righting wrongs in an attempt to salve his own conscience, or buy his own redemption. There is little relief in this novel, scarce humour to lighten the constant tension, the tone of the book summarised in Lennon’s own musings:
Jack Lennon knew a human soul could bear an almost infinite amount of shame as long as it remained inside, and stayed hidden from others. Many bad people survived that way. In the quietest minutes of the night, he wondered if he was one of them.
Despite the bleak tone, and the philosophising, Neville has produced another brilliantly-plotted and well-paced crime novel. Like Collusion, it fails to quite reach the heights of The Twelve, but let’s face it, “brilliant” rather than “exceptional” is still something to shout about. Unlike many other Northern Irish crime writers, Neville has not only acknowledged the region’s recent history, but embraced it and made it a central part of the wonderful trilogy of which Stolen Souls is the perfect closing chapter. While it works as a standalone piece of fiction – canned history is included which will give the first-time reader enough to avoid being completely lost – it works best when read in conjunction with the first two novels. Stolen Souls cements Stuart Neville’s reputation as one of Northern Ireland’s finest exports, and a crime writer to keep on your radar.
Gerard Brennan (www.gerardbrennan.co.uk)
Pulp Press (www.pulppress.co.uk)
Coming, as I do, from the wilds of West Belfast, I have an aversion to the Norn Irish accent on film and television; for me, there’s something distinctly cringe-worthy about it, a fact that is probably best exemplified every time Liam Neeson opens his mouth (who would have thought Oskar Schindler was, actually, originally from Ballymena? Or that Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn might hail from the planet of Countyantrim?). Strangely, though, the same aversion doesn’t apply to the written word, so I find myself putting on my broadest Belfaaawst and enjoying the likes of Jason Johnson’s beautiful Woundlicker or Stuart Neville’s dark and wonderful The Twelve. So it was in that frame of mind that I picked up Gerard Brennan’s The Point and, as the locals might have it, got stuck in.
Paul Morgan is a small-time crook who has a habit of getting brother Brian involved in his schemes. When Paul is caught trying to steal from local hoodlum Mad Mickey, he is given a week to get out of Belfast. Choosing seaside town Warrenpoint – The Point of the title – Paul and Brian embark on one last series of jobs, breaking into student digs in an attempt to raise some cash. Upon arriving in The Point, Brian promptly meets, and falls in love with, Rachel, a girl with some psychotic tendencies. He gets a steady job, and gets ready to settle down, while Paul finds the local underworld and gets involved with the local big man who immediately gives him a job stealing cars to order. As Paul’s inability to stay out of trouble once again comes to the fore, things spiral out of control and the brothers find themselves in their tightest spot yet with no clear means of escape.
Brennan does an excellent job showing us the decaying relationship between these two brothers – the one who needs to be constantly in the thick of things, always on the run from somebody; the other who wants no involvement, but is unable to help himself when his brother is in trouble. It’s the classic noir tale of how the introduction of a woman can drastically alter the landscape of a close male relationship – be it best friends or brothers – relocated to modern day Northern Ireland and peopled by a cast of believable – if not always likeable – characters. There’s a dark humour running throughout the book, and it is easy to forget that this is, after all, noir. The parting shot is all the more shocking in light of the humour that has gone before and is handled with a confidence that marks Brennan, a relative newcomer to the scene, as one to watch in the future.
The packaging of this story is nothing less than perfect. Pulp Press have produced a small paperback of a size and style with the old 50s pulp paperbacks. The £7.99 price point might seem a little high for such a short piece, but the story is definitely worth every penny. Northern Irish slang abounds, but shouldn’t cause too much difficulty, but keep Google handy just in case. Short, sharp and shocking, The Point is Northern Irish noir at its best – dark, funny, gritty and, most of all, believable – and a fitting homage to the works of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and the swathes of others who defined the genre in the early-to-mid-20th century.