#30 / Stuart Neville, Ratlines

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.

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#29 / Stuart Neville, The Twelve

Stuart Neville, The Twelve (London: Vintage, 2010). Hard-hitting Belfast noir that excavates the controversial past of The Troubles  4.5 stars

Opening line: Maybe if he had one more drink they’d leave him alone.

I read the first two chapters of The Twelve late one night at the Harrogate crime festival, and was immediately hooked. An extremely well-written blend of hard-hitting noir and ghost story, it tackles the controversial subject of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in a highly original and effective way.

The novel is set in 2007, around the time of the St. Andrew’s Agreement. Its central protagonist is Gerry Fegan, a former paramilitary hitman, who has been haunted nightly since his release from prison by the ghosts of the twelve people he murdered. When the ghosts demand that he exact eye-for-an-eye justice on their behalf, by executing various individuals complicit in their deaths, Gerry agrees, on the condition that they’ll leave him alone once he’s done. However, he also has to deal with the fallout of his actions in a fragile post-conflict Belfast.

Gerry’s ghosts consist of three British soldiers, two soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment, a Royal Ulster Constabulary policeman, two Ulster Freedom Fighter Loyalists, as well as four civilians – a shopkeeper, a teenager, and a woman and her baby. The way they haunt him (a trope with a rich pedigree in the work of Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Toni Morrison and Stephen King, amongst others), allows the author to examine the history and violence of The Troubles to devastating effect, and to explore larger themes of guilt, justice and responsibility in the post-conflict era. 

There is a particularly ingenious openness built into the ghostly figures and how we understand them as readers. We can either choose to accept that they’re a genuine supernatural happening, or alternatively, as Gerry’s psychologist argues, that they are a ‘manifestation’ of his guilt.

If we opt for the former interpretation, then the ghosts’ desire for vengeance can be seen as a response to the lack of justice in the wake of their deaths. The men who sanctioned their murders, some of whom are now respectable politicians with their eyes on power at Stormont, have evaded punishment. Even the little justice that was served has been sacrificed to facilitate an end to the conflict: murderers like Gerry were released from prison early and re-classified as ‘political prisoners’ following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. (This is a common conflict-resolution dilemma – to what extent can or should justice be sacrificed in the interests of achieving political stability?) 

If, on the other hand, we view the ghosts as the creation of Gerry’s fevered imagination, they can be seen as the embodiment of his guilt, but also as the means by which he sidesteps that guilt. Instead of fully accepting moral responsibility, he uses the ghosts to hold those who were above him in the chain of command accountable for his own crimes (the classic ‘I was following a superior’s orders’ defence).

So the ghosts point up the price paid for sacrificing justice as part of the peace settlement (the ghouls are a vicious ‘return of the repressed’), while also delivering a complex portrait of a perpetrator’s struggle to cope with his guilt. Very clever indeed.  

Alternate cover…

The key question for me throughout the narrative was how the author was going to square the circle of Gerry’s own guilt, given the latter’s ultra-violent past and present (he was and is a murderer, no matter how you spin the motivation for his actions). I’m not *quite* sure that the narrative’s moral logic was wholly sustained at the end (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers). But given the complexities of the subject-matter, I think the novel does an admirable job of maintaining a balanced point of view: barely anyone – be they Catholic, Protestant, Northern Irish, British or other – comes out of this story morally intact. Crucially, the narrative’s emotionally ‘cool’ tone ensures that readers are not tempted to empathise with Gerry in such a way as to excuse his crimes or moral failings.     

Given the assurance with which the narrative is written, it’s hard to believe that this was the author’s publishing debut. I haven’t been this impressed by a first novel since reading Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez.   

You can read the first two chapters of The Twelve here.

There are also a number of ‘deleted scenes’ from the novel available on Stuart Neville’s website, which are worth a read after you’ve finished the novel.

The Twelve (titled The Ghosts of Belfast in the US), is the first of a three-part series. The others are Collusion and Stolen Souls.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Twelve a hard-hitting and memorable 4.5 stars.

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