4 July 2009 0 Comments

Review: The blood and ghosts of Belfast

The Twelve by Stuart Neville
Harvill Secker (July 2, 2009 isbn: 1846552796)
(to be published in US in October as “The Ghosts of Belfast”, Soho Crime isbn: 1569476004)

Things that seemed clear enough to kill for during a conflict become impossible to look at once the murdering is at an end. Anyone who’s lived through a war or a time of terrorism could tell you that. Most of us bury those images. Gerry Fegan, the main character of Stuart Neville’s disturbing, compelling debut novel “The Twelve,” can’t look away. The ghosts of the people he killed as an IRA operative hang around with him, watching, taunting. The result is as thought-provoking a book on the aftermath of conflict as you’ll ever read.

At first it seems Fegan is merely mad with trauma, remorse and drink. A hopeless casualty who’s failed to move on, as the rest of Northern Ireland steps into a new world of peace and reconciliation. Then the ghosts urge him to avenge them, killing the IRA street bosses and police turncoats who set up their deaths. The book takes an eery leap into the supernatural reminiscent of the books of Neville’s fellow Irishman John Connelly. The ghosts become characters in the book until – without giving away one of the most chilling moments in Neville’s climax – we see the proof that Fegan isn’t crazy, or if he is then he isn’t the only one who’s crazy. Instead, he shares a bond with the other bloodied footsoldier, a British agent named Campbell who can no longer imagine life without the danger of discovery and death.

Neville’s masterstroke is to take a post-conflict situation where of necessity a lot of former bad guys are converted to good guys — gunmen made into legislators still running corrupt business sidelines — and to show the price paid by those who can’t shrug off their past. Just as with the Palestinian militias of my Omar Yussef Mysteries, there was always a streak in the IRA that was more interested in racketeering and extortion than it was in fighting for “freedom” – all the killing was just a pretext for being the hardest gangsters in town. Neville’s book is a thrilling record of the traces of crime and blood left behind when the politicians command us to move on.

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