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.