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, he's 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 (see my reviews) 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 a well-chosen setting.
As with "Twelve" (see my review), 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 its 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've reviewed all six), 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 structure may appear very schematic, but this concentration on streamlining the action works in favor of the momentum. The natural suspense set up runs its own steady course, and 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.
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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy (Fionnchu)
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica. … more
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“Neville follows his stunning debut, The Ghosts of Belfast, with an even more powerful tale of revenge, violence, and redemption . . . Neville rides the perfect Celtic storm in an action-packed, cerebral thriller with fully realized characters and an insider’s view of the ever-shifting politics of Northern Ireland…” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“Riveting....Neville's deft style builds mounting tension, and his characters, all tragic figures, are skillfully developed....The violence, administered up close and personal—and the rage of those who commit it—is almost operatic. A feast for thriller fans." —Booklist, Starred Review
“Neville’s sophomore effort is just as well written and just as violent as his debut, winner of the LA Times book prize for best crime fiction 2009. Neville creates sympathy for his characters in the midst of violence and betrayal and reveals Northern Ireland as a country still under the effects of decades of terror.” —Library Journal, Starred Review