When Soho Press asked us to see if we'd be interested in adding Stuart Neville to our January schedule, I jumped at the chance. Even though Sunday afternoons can be tough, and we're doing it at 3 pm so that it works out better with flights, we've had a great track with Mr. Neville's books.
When Stuart Neville's novel Ghosts of Belfast was published here in 2009, he hit the nerve of several Boswellians. Jason said we had something like four staff recs on the book, and it was on Greg's staff rec shelf for close to a year. And here it is.
Ghosts of Belfast
"Gerry Fagan isn't a very charismatic fellow. An ex-IRA enforcer, cold-blooded killer, drunk, and haunted by twelve ghosts of his previous innocent victims. And yet, we take to him immediately. In order to free himself from the unwelcome otherworldly company, Fagan will have to do as they wish: kill those responsible for their death, his old comrades. Dark, gritty, violent, and addicting."
It was a rare thing, a novel that appealed to both mystery fans (like Anne, who featured Ghosts of Belfast in our in-store mystery group) and science fiction aficionados like Greg. And then of course there were fans of Irish literature. I found this rec for the sequel from our ex-Boswellian Carl.
"Powerful characterizations and non-stop action propel this thriller from Northern Ireland. Returning characters like the haunted Gerry Fegan and crime boss Bull O'Kane, along with new, great ones like The Traveller, a cold-blooded assassin, and Inspector Jack Lennon, are unforgettable. Neville has proven himself a major talent with this follow-up to The Ghosts of Belfast."
After one more thriller featuring Jack Lennon, Stolen Souls, Stuart Neville has jumped to a new milieu for his novel Ratlines. It's 1963 and Europe is still reeling from World War II. Ireland, with its hatred for the British, has become a destination for Nazi collaborators, but recently, several have been killed. So they bring in this detective, Albert Ryan to figure out what's happening at the bequest of a wealthy, particularly influential Nazi whose been granted asylum, only Ryan doesn't exactly seem like the most obvious choice. For one thing, he's Protestant and actually left Ireland to fight for the Allies with the British troops. But as an ex-soldier he also knows duty, but under the circumstances, he also knows conscience.
I'm right in the middle of Ratlines and I have to say, it's terrific. Moody, atmospheric, with a great dark character at the front, lots of moral ambiguity, a femme fatale (his new girlfriend is working for the collaborator, and I'm not giving anything away here) and of course a great sense of place. That scene where Ryan goes home to have dinner with his parents is heartbreaking and of course a bit funny too. There's so much built into the scene that's not said, and it says so much about Ryan the person.
I was just chatting with my friend and customer Bob, and we were talking about why it seems Ireland produces way more than their fair share of amazing writers. And this is the thing about Stuart Neville.
You like a great mystery? You can read Neville. Ken Bruen said "Nobody should be as darn talented as Stuart Neville" (quote amended to get through filters). And I was reminded a bit of Alan Furst too, for what that's worth. I would certainly recommend it to that person reading Furst.
You like the Dublin setting and complicated character pieces wrapped in a thriller like Tana French? Go with Neville. It's certainly not the same Dublin, but if you do your vicarious travelling through books like I do, it shows you how Ireland got from then (Neville) to now (French).
You like Irish literary writers like Toíbín and Barry and the O'Briens (Edna and Flann)? Then I think you probably would want to pick up this as well.
Need any more incentive? Here's the starred review from Publishers Weekly. It's not particularly quotable, but calls Ryan a "formidable, damaged here." Aren't those the best heroes?
Stuart Neville is appearing at Boswell on Sunday, January 6, 3 pm.
Addendum, written on January 3. I finished Ratlines today, and there were several more twists and betrayals before I was done. I don't think I noted what ratlines are--they are the route of the Nazi collaborators out of Europe and into South America. I also didn't mention too much about the folks that seemed to be going after Otto Skorzany, the Nazi turned Irish gentleman farmer who seems to have an awful lot of folks in his pocket.
It's a pretty brutally violent book for a reader with a delicate disposition like me. Some of the torture scenes brought back my nightmares from seeing Marathon Man decades ago. But I have to remember Quentin Tarentino's remarks to Terry Gross this week when chatting about Django Unchained--movie violence is not real. And in the end, it's all pretty satisfying, but like in many thrillers and also real life, not everything you want to happen happens.
In terms of my comparisons, it's certainly as cerebral as Alan Furst, but I understand that that classic espionage can be almost all head game, and the violence does make me think twice about the comparison.
I'm still in the process of exhaling.