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The 2015 Round-Up

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take a step back and reflect on the year that has been. As is now “traditional”, I’ll be using this post to talk about my favourite books of the year, but first a quick blast through some of the non-bookish stuff that happened in the past twelve months.

For me, 2015 was always going to be significant because it’s the year in which I turned forty (so old!) and, thanks to my wife, I spent my fortieth birthday fulfilling the lifelong ambition of visiting KL Auschwitz and the nearby city of Kraków (I’ll talk more about this early in the New Year). 2015 also saw the release of the much-hyped latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, a film that did not disappoint, and which reawakened (pun most definitely intended) something of the child buried deep within this forty-year-old body, helped in no small way by the fact that I was able to share the experience with my six-year-old son, who bears all the hallmarks of becoming twice the nerd his father is.

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, Goodreads informs me that I have read 74 books, and I’m likely to finish both my current paperback and audiobook reads before the end of the day. Of these, 34 are by authors I have never read before, and 13 of those were debuts. A miserly seven were translated fiction, and you’ll find a few of them on the lists below.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot that only 34 reviews were posted on Reader Dad during 2015, which falls way short of the 74 books completed. I can only apologise, and my only excuse is laziness. My aim for 2016 is to get back to a more regular review schedule and to review, if not everything I read, then the vast majority of it. As a result, many of the books in the top ten lists below don’t have links to existing reviews.

The lists, as always, are presented in the order in which the books were read, so don’t attach any importance to their relative positions.

MATT’S TOP DEBUTS OF 2015

ARAB JAZZ by Karim Miské [trans: Sam Gordon] (MacLehose Press)

Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.

THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh (Orion Books)

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

DARK STAR by Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

One of the most interesting and original books you’ll read this year, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star is one of those gems that creeps up and takes you by surprise. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and built around a character that is at once a complete stranger and an old friend, it sucks the reader in from the opening stanza, and holds the attention to the very last word. There are ideas and concepts here that will leave you wide-eyed with wonder, alongside wise-cracks that might have dropped fully-formed from the nib of Raymond Chandler’s pen. In short, a masterpiece, and a story you really won’t want to miss.

JAKOB’S COLOURS by Lindsay Hawdon (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautiful and horrific, Jakob’s Colours is an intense and gripping examination of one person’s experiences during the Second World War, written in a way that examines how an entire race of people suffered during that war. Lindsay Hawdon’s writing is beautiful, her characterisation pitch perfect, her ability to terrify and sicken eclipsed only by her ability to make us smile, to appeal to our maternal or paternal instincts for this small boy on his own. Like any book whose subject is genocide, it is difficult to come away from Jakob’s Colours feeling that you’ve enjoyed yourself, but it is an important book, a story that is still very relevant seventy years after its setting; this is a book that demands an audience and I can guarantee that you will not come away disappointed.

THE ENCHANTED THE ENCHANTED by Rene Denfield (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I didn’t review this book at the time because I didn’t think I could do it justice. Told from the point of view of a prisoner on death row, it intertwines his story with that of an investigator tasked with getting the sentence of a fellow inmate commuted. Beautiful and haunting, it’s an accomplished first novel that will leave you gasping for more.

Small Angry Planet THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

Without doubt, the best piece of science fiction you’ll read this year, or any year. Following Rosemary Harper’s first few months as a member of the Wayfarer’s crew, this wonderful novel focuses very much on the characters as a way to tell its tale. And what a bunch of characters they are! Reminiscent of the dear-departed Firefly, the novel has an episodic structure that means each chapter is a self-contained “story” that, when combined, produces a fun, action-packed space opera adventure that should not be missed.

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman (Faber & Faber)

There are echoes of William Gay in Bouman’s writing, even with the northern setting, and the central premise has the feel of Longmire about it. Despite the light tone, and the friendliness of Henry Farrell, there is a hard edge to Dry Bones in the Valley, a tension that oozes from the pages to the point where it feels like Henry is putting on an act to put us at ease as we navigate the almost incestuous relationships that define Wild Thyme. It is a beautifully-written work that sucks the reader into this strange and beautiful world. The solution to these horrific crimes becomes secondary as the novel progresses, the voice of Henry and his stories and observations the main reason we’re in this to the end. Henry Farrell is the type of character that deserves further outings, though his current placement is likely to make that difficult (just how many people can die in a small town before it becomes ridiculous? I’m looking at you, Midsomer!). One thing is for sure: Tom Bouman is a writer of considerable talent, and Dry Bones in the Valley, one of the best pieces of detective fiction I’ve read in some time, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The-Loney THE LONEY by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray)

Another stunner that I failed to review at the time. Quietly disturbing and beautifully written, this is the horror debut of the year. Hurley is already on my must-read list.

 

MATT’S TOP NON-DEBUTS OF 2015

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)

Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.

THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky (Hodder & Stoughton)

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.

CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING by Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.

I AM RADAR by Reif Larsen (Harvill Secker)

There are touches of beauty and genius between the covers of I Am Radar. It’s an engaging and emotionally-charged novel that is guaranteed to keep the reader engrossed for the duration. Filled with characters with their own stories to tell – the cast of I Am Radar could populate an entire library of novels – I Am Radar is the perfect fusion of story and design to create something unique, enduring and wonderfully quirky. Funny and touching, exciting and horrifying, it marks a welcome return for Reif Larsen, and a novel you most definitely will not want to miss.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)

With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.

ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis (Picador)

All Involved is, in short, an incredible piece of fiction set against one of the darker periods in America’s recent history. Intricately plotted, finely detailed, this is a beautifully-written novel that gives the reader some insight into the mind-set of the people involved in what can only be described as a fictional representation of something that could very well have happened while all eyes were looking elsewhere. Ryan Gattis has proven himself to be a writer of considerable talent, with an ear for language and inflection that allows him to create living, breathing characters who seem to jump off the page. Expect to have trouble putting this one down once you’ve started reading but under no circumstances should you miss this opportunity to watch a true master at work.

FALL OF MAN IN WILMSLOW by David Lagercrantz [trans: George Goulding] (MacLehose Press)

David Lagercrantz is a name that you’ll have heard a lot recently, as he has written a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which sees worldwide publication later this year. Fall of Man in Wilmslow is the first of his novels to get an English translation, and shows that he is a writer of considerable talent. In much the same way that Jöel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is the perfect American novel, here Lagercrantz has produced something that feels truly English, from the sleepy setting of Wilmslow, to the character of Leonard Corell. Beautifully written – not to mention wonderfully translated by George Goulding (a new name for me) – it is at once a brilliant portrait of one of the nation’s (not to mention my own personal) heroes, an engaging mystery, and a shocking look at the values and opinions of the English in the early 1950s. An unexpected gem, Fall of Man in Wilmslow is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and leaves me with the hope that we’ll see more of Lagercrantz’s work translated (beyond summer’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web) in the very near future.

As an aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web was an exceptional follow-up to Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and probably would have secured a place on this list had Fall of Man in Wilmslow not been released the same year.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (The Borough Press)

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

STALLO by Stefan Spjut [trans: Susan Beard] (Faber & Faber)

Stallo is not Stefan Spjut’s first novel, but it is his first in the horror genre. Following in the successful footsteps of John Ajvide Lindqvist, Spjut presents a story – not to mention a central conceit – that is pure Sweden, but which is given a global appeal through a choice of monster that has haunted the dreams of every child at some point in their lives (‘Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?’). Beautifully written, this is quiet horror at its finest. Destined to be forever compared to Lindqvist’s vampire classic, Stallo stands well enough in its own right to show that the burgeoning Swedish horror scene is more than a one-trick pony, and fills this reader with joy at the prospect of what is still to come. Stefan Spjut is a name to remember; I expect we’ll be hearing plenty from him in the coming years. Stallo is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of horror fiction, and should prove an interesting alternative for those growing tired of the endless parade of Swedish detectives that seem to be taking over the shelves of our local bookshops.

WAY DOWN DARK by JP Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)

Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

EVERY NIGHT I DREAM OF HELL by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

This one feels very much like I’m preaching to the choir: those who have read Malcolm Mackay’s earlier novels will know what to expect, and will probably already have committed to read Every Night I Dream of Hell regardless of what anyone else thinks. For those who haven’t, this isn’t necessarily the best place to start; it can be read without having read the Glasgow Trilogy, but you’ll be missing out on the much richer experience that more than a nodding acquaintanceship with this world provides. Either way, this is noir fiction at its best: sharp and cloaked in shadows, with more than a hint of humour, and enough blood to keep the wheels greased. Malcolm Mackay continues to produce engaging and thought-provoking work in a beautiful prose style that puts him head and shoulders above his contemporaries. In a word: perfect.

SOLOMON CREED by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)

Simon Toyne’s fourth novel, the first to be set outside the fictional world to which he introduced us in his Sanctus trilogy, cements his place as one of the finest genre writers working today. Clever and engaging, Toyne weaves a number of strands together to produce an exciting, page-turning read. As always, his characterisations are pitch perfect and his sense of place second-to-none – his small-town Arizona seems as real as the Turkish city of Ruin. A perfectly-formed thriller in the author’s own unique style, Solomon Creed is not to be missed by returning fans and Toyne virgins alike.

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

night-music-uk-225 NIGHT MUSIC: NOCTURNES VOLUME 2 by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

Best known for his Charlie Parker crime novels, John Connolly has a penchant for horror in the short form. This second collection of short horror stories contains some absolute gems, as well as a wonderful Lovecraftian novella in five parts, “The Fractured Atlas”.

THE GREAT SWINDLE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans: Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

I was disappointed with the final book in Lemaitre’s Camille Verhoeven trilogy, feeling that he might have given his best for the first two books of the series. In The Great Swindle he has redeemed himself and proven that he has much more to offer. While very different from his modern day crime trilogy, this latest novel is quintessential Lemaitre: beautifully-written, carefully structured and filled with characters that we love or hate with the same intensity that we might if they were real. It’s an examination of a dark period in French history through the eyes of these people, while still allowing us to see the funny side of things. The first in a proposed 7-book series set to span the interwar period, this fun and intense read (an interesting combination that works extremely well) The Great Swindle puts Pierre Lemaitre firmly back on my must-read list. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and it’s sure to be a book we’ll be talking about for some time. Not to be missed.

THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne (Doubleday)

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

COMING SOON…

With 2016 looming, one of my resolutions is to try to review all of the books I read this year. The first review, that of Keith Lee Morris’ excellent Travelers Rest, should appear shortly before the end of the year. With new novels from Stephen King, Joe Hill, Daniel Polansky and Sarah Pinborough all due within the first half of the year, it’s shaping up to be another bumper year for readers of genre fiction.

All that remains is for me to thank the wonderful publicists and publishers who keep me stocked with such excellent reading material; the fantastic authors who not only provide these excellent reads but who, in many cases, give up time and energy to write guest posts or provide answers to my inane Q&As; and you, the readers, for your continued support: without you, I’d just be talking to myself.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy, Safe and Prosperous 2016. May The Force Be With You!*

 

* Well, it is the year of the rebirth of Star Wars, after all!

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by Stuart Neville

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND - Stuart Neville THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND

Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)

£12.99

Released: June 2015

After seven years served for the murder of his foster father, Ciaran Devine is released from the young offenders’ centre where he and his brother Thomas spent their teenage years. Probation Officer Paula Cunningham is assigned his case – a high-profile case at the time of sentencing, though neither Ciaran nor his brother were named at the time – and reaches out to DCI Serena Flanagan, who helped to put the young man behind bars, to get a better feel for what she can expect. Flanagan is convinced of Ciaran’s innocence, believing that he covered for his older brother. Now that he is back on the street, the women are convinced that he is falling into his old ways, being led astray by Thomas. When the son of the man they murdered – who shares Flanagan’s belief in Ciaran’s innocence  – is beaten, Flanagan and Cunningham concoct a means to separate the brothers, and attempt to get the truth from Ciaran, using any means necessary, despite the fact that it puts both women at odds with their superiors, and sees Flanagan playing dangerously close to the edge of breaking the law herself.

Those We Left Behind, the latest novel from Northern Ireland’s own Stuart Neville, reintroduces us to Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan, who we first met in Neville’s previous novel, The Final Silence. Along with the shift from his long-term series stalwart, Jack Lennon, there is a subtle change in tone in Neville’s writing towards psychological thriller, and marks Those We Left Behind as the first of his Belfast-based crime novels not to feature a heavily sectarian slant. In some ways, this mirrors the changing nature of crime in Belfast itself, as the city continues to try to distance itself from the stigma of the so-called Troubles.

Despite the short period of time that has passed since the events of The Final Silence, we find Serena Flanagan a very different person. We meet her as she returns to work following surgery to combat breast cancer. Flanagan’s career progressed in a time and a place where it was difficult enough to be a police officer, let alone a female one, and we see some of this as she readjusts to her job, and deals with the reactions – and obvious discomfort – of her mostly male colleagues. Neville also gives us a view into her family life, and the impact the cancer and the ensuing surgery has had on her marriage. It is little wonder, then, that she has changed so much in such a short period of time. She may be less sure of herself than was her previous incarnation, but we get a deeper insight into the character as the novel progresses, a fleshing-out that was necessarily missing from before, leaving no doubt that Flanagan is Neville’s finest creation since The Twelve’s Gerry Fegan, a complex, layered character about whom we still have much to learn.

Intertwining the narrative with occasional flashbacks, Neville shows us how the relationship between Flanagan and Ciaran develops, from their initial meeting during the investigation into the murder of his foster father, through to his current obsession with her. Despite the fact that the novel has a number of viewpoints – mainly Flanagan, Cunningham and Ciaran – the author manages to maintain suspense throughout, making the reader feel almost as if they’re inside Flanagan’s head for the duration. The violence, when it occurs, does so off-stage, leaving both reader and investigator to piece together the clues and come to their own conclusion. Whether it is the right conclusion remains in doubt until the story’s thrilling climax, a testament to Neville’s abilities as a plotter and storyteller.

Through all this, we watch as Flanagan deals with the aftermath of her illness and surgery, and its impact on her life, both personally and professionally. In one subplot, both these worlds collide with a bang, and we, as readers, find ourselves completely invested in Flanagan’s reaction, her need to meddle in a case that has nothing to do with her, but which affects her on a personal level. Throughout, Neville manages to find the right balance between examining the impact, and keeping the story moving.

 

As with his previous novels, Belfast plays a key role in the story. Here the author widens his scope, and takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Northern Ireland, from Flanagan’s base in Lisburn, to the Serious Crime Suite of Antrim Police Station, to the seaside resort of Newcastle. Neville relies heavily on the geography of these places, giving the story a very definite sense of location and imbuing it with a distinct flavour of Northern Ireland.

 

With Those We Left Behind, Stuart Neville leaves behind the crimes of post-Troubles Belfast, and focuses on the everyday crimes of a growing, maturing city. A masterwork of misdirection, this is a well-written novel by an author who seems to have found his groove, producing novels that are more challenging for both himself and the reader with each consecutive release. Stuart Neville is at the forefront of the Irish crime fiction movement, and Those We Left Behind is an excellent example of why that’s the case. The perfect jumping-on point for new readers, this is also a very welcome addition for long-time fans, and will leave both groups crying out for more: more Stuart Neville; more Serena Flanagan.

RATLINES by Stuart Neville

Ratlines - Stuart Neville RATLINES

Stuart Neville (stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)

£12.99

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.

STOLEN SOULS by Stuart Neville

STOLEN SOULS - Stuart Neville STOLEN SOULS

Stuart Neville (www.stuartneville.com)

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk)

£12.99

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.’

‘Tit-for-tat?’

‘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.

THE POINT by Gerard Brennan

THE POINT by Gerard Brennan THE POINT

Gerard Brennan (www.gerardbrennan.co.uk)

Pulp Press (www.pulppress.co.uk)

£7.99

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.

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