Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stuart Neville's "Collusion": Book Review

This sequel to The Ghosts of Belfast takes its time. Jack Lennon's character's expanded and although not quite likable, his predicament softens you to him. In Irish noir fashion, he's caught between who he should trust in a place where nobody's secrets stay so. He's from a Catholic family who's rejected him after he joined what was, fifteen years ago, an overwhelmingly Protestant Northern police force. Jack sought to do his share to heal a community who trusted the cops less than the thugs and paramilitaries who controlled the streets with their own clumsy and cynical justice, and the injustice that set up Jack's brother, Liam, as the informer he was not.

Jack struggles now, after the bloody events of the first novel continue as witnesses to its considerable slaughter (even by Troubles thrillers standards) are killed off. At 37, he's still trawling the pubs in search of companionship. "He wasn't quite old enough to be anyone's father, but maybe a creepy uncle." His years in the tangled loyalties and betrayals of Northern Irish hatreds, after the uneasy peace, rankle him. "Some say that when you're on your deathbed, it'd be the things you didn't do that you'd regret. Lennon knew that was a lie."

Resented by his colleagues and alone in a gentrifying city: "Belfast was starting to grate on him, with its red-brick houses and cars parked on top of one another. And the people, all smug and smiling now they'd gathered the wit to quit killing each other and start making money instead." Similar to Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor series set in Galway today, Neville's Jack must deal with an Ireland eager to leave his sort behind in a rush for greed.

Detective Inspector Lennon still must do what he feels right, despite official opposition. A shady lawyer reasons: "Look, collusion worked all ways, all directions. Between the Brits and the Loyalists, between the Irish government and the Republicans, between the Republicans and the Brits, between the Loyalists and the Republicans." The connections extend, after the peace process, into this novel set in 2007.

He must protect the lives of his daughter, Ellen, a curiously cognizant little girl, and of her mother, Marie, from whom he's been long estranged. Without divulging too much, they need safety as the aftermath of the events in Ghosts, (published in Britain as The Twelve) escalate and dueling killers converge for a dramatic showdown in an echoing country house.

As with Ghosts (see my review on Amazon US & this blog), Neville starts off his story strongly. In a plot driven by straightforward dialogue and efficient pursuits, he does not lavish the small details, so when they do enter the telling, they linger. The fear of being pulled over on a rural road, the sight of a fox in headlights, the stealth of sneaking into an apartment stick with you. "More village lights ahead, and beyond them, the town of Lurgan with its knotted streets and traffic lights and cops. He took a left down a narrow country road to avoid them. The world darkened."

This novel succeeds for a simpler structure. Given the twists and turns, the direction moves clearly. The Ghosts of Belfast may have garnered acclaim, as did recent noir by fellow Irish writers Tana French (In the Woods, then The Likeness, and recently A Faithful Place) and John Banville as Benjamin Black (Christine Falls, then The Silver Swan, and recently Elegy for April-- I reviewed the last title for PopMatters and all six for Amazon US & this blog), but as with French and Black, I'd argue that the second installments work better even if the first ones gained awards.

Characters are studied, the pace calms, and reflection eases tension. There's a mystery haunting more than one figure we follow, and this increases the interest in their hidden knowledge. The brutality's again here for Neville, but it feels as if there are fewer chases and shootouts, so the sinister atmosphere needs less emphasis. The showdowns may lack a bit of originality and the arrangements may be schematic, but this concentration on a streamlined plot assists comprehension. The natural suspense set up runs its own steady course, so the pace seems more controlled. As with Bruen, French, and Black, I predict from the strength of this second novel that Neville's proven himself capable of a great third novel that takes us deeper into the Northern noir to match his Dublin and Galway-based fictional and factual peers in this Celtic noir genre.

(P.S. I also reviewed Requiems for the Departed for PopMatters, Amazon, and this blog; Neville's "Queen of the Hill" was one of the strongest stories in this crime collection inspired by Celtic myth. This review posted to Amazon US & Britain 9-11-10 and then in slightly edited form, and submitted in another slightly revised version to PopMatters 10-1-2010.)


Jack said...

Enjoyed your review. I have recently become a Stuart Neville fan having recently read and reviewed "Ghosts of Belfast". (see if you are interest in my review)

I have started "Collusion" and so far find it compelling. I immediately thought of the opening of the 2 books when you said than the sequel "takes its time". With "Ghosts" I was hooked in the first page or 2. "Collusion" starts much slower and it took me 30 pages or so to get into it. The author is off to a very good start with these 2 and I hope we will be seeing many more books from him.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Jack, I think "Collusion" is more schematic, less frenetic, but for this, it works for me more steadily. For all its very "organized" and methodical feel, "Collusion" shows Neville settling down as a writer, and his more modest second novel's the better for this control and planning. Like you, I find myself wanting more of Gerry Fagen.

"Ghosts/Twelve" started off splendidly but the mayhem began to bore me, as in an overwrought, pumped-up blockbuster movie. Neville's better when staying with a character for a while, and digging into motivations. I suspect this is a transitional novel to a lot more about Jack Lennon in books to come.

Jack said...

Funny, but I felt just the other way. I liked both Collusion and Ghosts. The Jack Lennon character is interesting and I agree much more could be done with the character and I hope to see him more in future books. But I never felt the mayhem in Ghost was too much the top whereas I did feel that way toward the end of Collusion. Anyway both are good books and I hope to see more from Stuart Neville.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

While very much a set-piece, the end of "Collusion" did wrap it up in a rather cinematic, cat & mouse situation that appeared written as if with screenplay in mind. "Ghosts/Twelve" I regarded as more of an action film in my mind; its sequel more of a psychological thriller, even if as you note, Jack, the body count if tallied may have neared the same casualty rate by the denouement!

Anonymous said...

The Ghosts of Belfast was one my favorite books of all time. I could'nt wait to read Nevilles follow up, Collusion. Greatly disappointing. The ending was no suprise since Fegans' dreams of fire and child were revealed early. The writing seemed to go in circles. Clumsily stumbling through repeated phrases and circumstances(did anyone proof read this mess?). Felt forced. A real let down...

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Anon, weird as I never got the hype about "Ghosts"--after a splendid start, it faltered for me and I lost interest for stretches of its Grand Guignol mayhem, which undercut the poignancy of the haunted voices. "Collusion" for me was more straightforward, even if lacked some of the depth of "Ghosts," it also lacked the body count which for me dulled its impact. Neville's third, surely, may let us both in to his talents, and how well he can sustain himself.