Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Stuart Neville's "Ghosts of Belfast": Book Review

Neville surveys the peace process and its discontents with a grim eye. Belfast’s younger generation buys overpriced coffee, crowds streets with cars, and reliably casts its votes as the world’s most cynical electorate. The old patterns persist of sectarianism, although political opportunism replaces Marxist posturing for paramilitaries gone if not straight, then into sex trafficking, drug deals, and smuggling. “The North had become the poor relation, the bastard child no one had the heart to send away.” (84) The newly rich angle to manipulate the media and the Establishment lest they let the dogs of war loose again; this proves more profitable than Semtex in egging on panic and then quelling it by stage-managed riots. This turns the goal of three dozen years of hatred, idealism, and violence.

Gerry Fegen begins his spree determined to literally and figuratively erase the demons of the twelve he killed for the Cause. By taking out those who remain who caused more bloodshed, Fegen reasons he will expiate his own crimes and silence those who haunt him from his dozen victims. This conceit features intriguingly in the narrative, and enlivens, if that’s the term, the predictably bloody action and spirited back-stabbing.

As he tracks down today’s guilty men, Fegen must relive his own killings, one by one. He turns a one-man avenger to take out all those who cling to power over the province by their ill-gotten terror and murder. The ghosts of the twelve victims, in a rare respite from the escalating bloodshed Fegen enters and exacerbates, often emerge poignantly, drawn from across the sectarian, uniformed, and civilian ranks of the innocents and the armed, both sides and all factions tangled then as now.

Characters drawn broadly, and recognizably despite their pseudonyms, from the spectrum of Ulster figures enrich this first novel by an Armagh resident. The plot’s as intricate and breakneck—- truly-— as you’d expect, although so quick it often rushes by the subtler characterizations that might have deepened empathy. It may be written with an eye towards the big screen; it’s labeled “the first in a series.” I admit my own jaundiced eye when it comes to the real-life inspirations for many of the villains within, but for fiction, this does drag the tone of this very dark, humorless story down very low. As the story thunders on, I felt a loss inside of nobody to care for that I’d miss when it ended. This may be intentional for this genre, but it did dishearten me. There’s a paucity of people here you can sympathize with. Nearly all seem to have made deals with rogues and devils. It’s a wasteland, no matter the infusion of Jaguars, mansions, and mobiles.

The sharp patter of the Northern Irish does not gain as much of a presence on the page as it might have; the book’s crafted for a wider audience less familiar perhaps with those it skewers. For instance, Gerry Fegen thinks indirectly via the omniscient narrator, of his time in the British-run local prison known to those of his background as “Long Kesh,” but he first recalls it as the “Maze,” a term more widely used in the media and by the majority population in the statelet, but a shibboleth not employed by Republicans. Explanations may be a bit didactic out of necessity for readers abroad, yet this allows those outside the inner circle of Irish intrigue to step into dark shadows of Belfast noir.

The beleaguered, bombed city may have outwardly changed into a glossy port awash in grant moneys, but inside, it harbors its own long memories of other peoples’ sins. “The same lowlifes still fed off the misery they created, deepening the divisions whenever they could. The same hatreds still bubbled under the surface. But the city had grown fat, learning to mask its scars when necessary and show them when advantageous.” (91) (Posted to Amazon US 10-6-09; British title; "The Twelve.")


Tony Bailie said...

i read the first chapter of this in a bookshop one day when I had too much time on my hands and nearly bought it but held back although I might go back to it some time. I acutally thought the central pemise was superb and from the first chapter was very well executed but the novel just isn't what I'm into at present. I think Neville has a story in the Red Hand of Crime anthology in which I also have a story which is due out next year, along with Ken Bruen and Sam Miller. So obviously I hope this novel does well for him both for his own sake and for that of next year's anthology.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, see Carrie's review on her FB notes for another nuanced critique. "Ghosts" is getting high praise on Amazon US, but my entry there was the first one not a giddy five stars-- two entries preceding were in CAPS. Not a good sign of discerning amateur critics, methinks snobbishly.

As you know, while I am not au courant with crime fiction normally, I share with Carrie an interest in the NI settings. She's well-read in that genre. Glad to hear you're in Bruen's company in the Red Hand anthology; I think highly of his own Jack Taylor Galway noir. What I admire: he makes you care somehow about his characters.