Stuart Neville, Ratlines (New York and London: Soho Press, 2013). A tense thriller, which examines a dark and fascinating corner of 1960s Irish history 4 stars
- Opening line: “You don’t look like a Jew,” Helmut Krauss said to the man reflected in the window pane.
Stuart Neville should receive a little prize for featuring in both my last review of 2012 and my first of 2013. My reading plan originally looked somewhat different, but in the end I couldn’t resist picking up Ratlines, as there was so much buzz about it online.
Neville is one of those authors who wades into controversial waters on a regular basis. His first novel, The Twelve, explored the legacy of The Troubles from the perspective of a former paramilitary hitman, while his fourth, Ratlines, highlights Ireland’s inglorious role in offering asylum to over a hundred former National Socialists and collaborators following the Second World War, including senior SS-member Otto Skorzeny and Breton nationalist leader Célestin Lainé. With supreme irony, the novel shows Justice Minister Charles Haughey hobnobbing with Skorzeny, who helps other former Nazis evade justice via ‘ratlines’ – routes of escape to safe territory – at around the same historical moment that war criminals such as Eichmann are on trial (Israel, 1961) and West Germany is confronting the Nazi past via the Auschwitz trials (Frankfurt, 1963-65).
When Neville kindly talked to me about the novel at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival, he explained that he was prompted to write on the subject by Cathal O’Shannon’s 2007 documentary Ireland’s Nazis, and elaborated as follows: ‘The more I dug into it, the more fascinating it became – the machinations of how those people got there, and why they were allowed to be there; and then the conflicts within the government itself, because the Department of Justice was notoriously anti-Semitic, but the Department of External Affairs was a lot more liberal, and there was a constant battle between these two parts of government about whether these people should be in Ireland or not’.
I loved the initial scenario presented in the novel. Former Nazis living in Ireland are being bumped off, and the government wants to stop the killings in order to avoid a scandal ahead of President Kennedy’s state visit in 1963. Lieutenant Albert Ryan, a member of the elite G2 (Directorate of Intelligence), is charged with tracking down the killer, but feels conflicted, as he fought with the British against the Nazis during the war, and is uneasy about the support he sees being given to his former enemies by the state. Ryan’s position allows Neville to outline a complex set of historical, political and moral dynamics: Ireland’s decision to remain neutral during the war (dubbed ‘The Emergency’); the postwar suspicion of the Irish who opted to fight ‘for’ the hated British colonisers; and the ways in which nationalism created a bridge between the Nazis and groups such as the IRA. I knew very little about these aspects of Irish history before reading the novel, and thoroughly appreciated the way in which they were illuminated – with an admirably light touch – in the first half of the narrative.
I was slightly less enamoured by the way the plot played out in the second half. To be fair, I think this has more to do with my own reading experiences than the book. ‘Nazi-themed’ crime novels are a key focus of my research as an academic, and I’ve read over 150 of them in the last five years (yes, really – see this list). There’s therefore very little that an author writing on this subject-matter could do to surprise me in terms of plot twists. Rest assured that there are plenty to be had as the novel develops … as well as some eye-watering violence in line with Neville’s earlier Belfast noir.
You can hear Stuart Neville chatting to Mark Lawson about Ratlines on Radio 4’s Front Row from 3rd January 2013.
There’s another, little-known crime novel by John Kelly, written in the 1968 but only published in 1993, which also touches on the subject of collaborators hiding in Ireland – The Polling of the Dead (Moytura Press). Kelly was a lawyer and politician, which may account for the posthmumous publication of the novel, and he casts a cool satirical eye over the post-war political landscape of late 1960s Dublin.
Probably the most famous novel about the postwar ‘ratlines’ is Frederick Forsyth’s 1972 The ODESSA File, which was adapted for film in 1974 with John Voight and Maximilian Schell in the leading roles. Along with Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (1976), this hugely successful crime novel/thriller used its narrative to communicate extensive historical information about National Socialism and the Holocaust to a mass readership.
With thanks to Soho Press for providing me with a review copy of the novel.
Mrs. Peabody awards Ratlines a taut and intriguing 4 stars.
Interesting Mrs P. I’ve read a couple of other reviews of this book and I’m intrigued. And I love ‘The Odessa File’. One for my list I think.
Yes, I think Neville’s found a very interesting angle, and I enjoy his style of writing as well – very noirish, which works well with this subject-matter. I love The Odessa File too – entertaining, but it crams in a huge amount of historical information about National Socialism, the Holocaust, and its postwar legacy too.
I believe De Valera sent a telegram with condolences to Grand Admiral Doenitz when he heard of Hitler’s death? One blogger mentioned some time ago that during a 1950s Catholic Irish education you were taught to hate Protestants, Jews and the English, not necessarily in that order. Thankfully Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council changed attitudes a little.
I think I must read this one.
It’s certainly not a very flattering picture that’s drawn, Norman (though ‘Dev’ is only mentioned briefly in Ratlines from what I can remember).
When I spoke to Stuart Neville at Harrogate, he mentioned a book that he’d used as part of his research – which he actually only found once he’d written the first draft, and somewhat ironically is by an Australian academic, Daniel Leach. It’s called Fugative Ireland: European Minority Nationalists and Irish Political Asylum, 1937-2008 (Four Courts Press). I bet it would make for a very interesting read in terms of some Irish attitudes both during and after the war.
Neville lists this and a few other sources at the back of Ratlines. I like it when authors do this – it’s great to be able to head off and do some extra reading on the issues that have been raised.
Mrs. P – What an excellent review! And this is an aspect of Irish life that I don’t know nearly enough about, so I really need to read this.
Many thanks, Margot. Yes, I felt like I learned a great deal through reading the novel – very interesting indeed.
One problem when writing this review was how to keep it a reasonable length – there was so much more that could have been said!
Thanks for this review. Such intriguing subject matter. I’ve read lots of literature on this period set in the UK, France and Germany but never considered an Irish link with the Nazis. I expect it will make an uncomfortable read.
Thanks, Tricia. Yes, I’d be interested to read reviews about the book that come out in Ireland, to see what kind of a reaction there is to the depiction of the issue and Haughey in particular.
This sounds like an interesting read and not something I normally do read, so I’m about to go and list it as to be read. Thank you.
You’re welcome, Rebecca. I’d be interested to see what you think of it, especially if it’s not normally the kind of book that would draw you to it…
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This book sounds fascinating, I have never read anything about Ireland and its role in WW2, so it’s going on my reading list. Odessa File was on TV on Christmas Eve afternoon, we all watched it, including my 2 boys, it’s realy well done. I remember reading the book as a youngster, time I think to get that and Day of the Jackal for my older son. Still enjoying your blog a lot, thank you!
Thanks, Blighty – I’m very glad you’re enjoying the blog – and thanks right back for reading and commenting 🙂
The 1970s was a real high-point for that kind of historical (or counter-historical) thriller, wasn’t it? The Boys from Brazil is another one that springs to mind, and then a bit later we have Fatherland in the 1990s. While they can get a little daft at times, they do also get across huge amounts of historical information – especially the original books.
Let me know what you think of Ratlines…:)
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