Saturday, April 6, 2013


I’ve been trying to read some Irish crime fiction, in preparation for a family trip to the Emerald Isle later this month.  There is a lot of it, and you can’t exactly call my sample of two authors scientific (for lots more good reccos, see any of this March’s entries on Detectives Beyond Borders).  But I can say with certainty that you should read Benjamin Black.  I’m not quite so certain about Stuart Neville, not based on Ratlines (2013, Soho Crime) anyway. 

Regular readers (all two of you) will know that I tried to get started earlier on this and dropped it out of disappointment with the prose.  I did pick it up again, and the fast-moving plot kept me engaged to the end.  In a nutshell, Our Hero is Albert Ryan, Irish intelligence officer, who is detailed to find out who is killing former bad guys (really bad guys, Nazis mostly) in Ireland.  They make a big deal about the fact that this is against the backdrop of President John Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Ireland, and that the country needs to be on its best behavior before he arrives.  But other than references at the beginning and the end, that bit historical context doesn’t add much to the plot. 

It appears that in sussing out these killers-of-bad-guys, Ryan will be protecting real-life former really bad guy and Nazi Otto Skorzeny who has taken up residence in Ireland.  This is all true, Skorzeny did purchase property there, although he never lived there permanently, and he was somehow, inexplicably de-Nazified after the war so he was able to travel pretty much wherever he liked.  He used this impunity, and the boatload of moolah that he somehow accumulated to help other Nazis who were not so lucky as him to get out of Europe, as well as to consult with groups and governments who generally followed what we might call an extreme right agenda – you know, Franco’s crowd, the Egyptian army, Gaddaffi’s gang, South African State Security in the 1960s, and so on.  It is said that he even helped Mossad track down a former Nazi in Israel, so we could say that he was an equal opportunity mercenary.  It’s all kind of interesting in a distasteful way.  (Yes, I know there are better sources than Wikipedia for this stuff, and if I was writing the book I would search them out as Neville has, but it is concise, you know, and right there at the top!  And I’m on to another book right now which I am really loving so ready to leave ol’ Otto behind.)

But back to our story.  There are enough twists and turns that you know more will be coming, so if you can make it through the blustering and foul-mouthed politicians, and Celia from central casting (red hair?  Check.), you’ll stick with the story.  And it is interesting to think about that larger question of how the laws of the land apply to someone whom everyone knows is a really bad guy.  Do you protect him, or have it him yourself?  Ryan himself is pretty much stateless, Irish by heritage, but having made the socially unacceptable move of serving in the British Army during the Emergency (what they call WW2).  There are other mercenary types here (the real bad guys, who are going after Skorzeny), and I guess we’re supposed to contrast that with Skorzeny’s blind support of any and all ardent nationalists and decide for ourselves where we stand.  I think that Neville is trying to make some arguments about nationalism – at heart, aren’t all the passionate ones nationalists – but Ryan isn’t really buying it, and neither am I. 

It is hard to really feel sympathy for any side here, though, given that all are so deeply invested in extreme violence as a tool for getting what they want.  There is a LOT of violence here, explicit, bloody, screaming, burning, and so on.  I guess that’s how these guys work.  I guess it didn’t work so much for me. 

And the writing settles down after a while, and is fine.  But every once in a while you run across an exchange like this:
“She tilted her head, showing him the smooth place beneath her ear.  ‘You haven’t asked my name.’
Ryan wondered for a moment if he should apologise.  Instead he put his hands in this pockets and feigned confidence.  ‘All right.  What’s your name?
‘Celia,’ she said, letting the sibilant drip like honey, the vowels thick between her lips.  ‘What’s yours?’” (54)
Ugh!  That’s where I stopped the first time, although I will say that's more of an anomaly.  Maybe Neville can't write women well.  The men don't drip their sibilants, except when they are being tortured, perhaps.

One very minor technical quibble:  Neville provides a list of sources at the end, which is great.  But please, date them!  It is hard to know if we are looking at the most recent scholarship in the field or not, and that means something to the few of us former academics who look at lists like that.

Ratlines does give you a nice bit of travelogue around Ireland, so that’s a plus.  Our Hero stayed at the same hotel in Dublin that we are going to be in!  I hope it’s had a spiff-up since then.  But yes, I think I’ll read another Neville, I’ve got The Ghosts of Belfast next to the tub.  And now I know what I’m getting.  

Slainte!  (can anyone tell me how to actually pronounce that?)

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