It’s been one hell of a fine year for crime fiction--and it’s only September. Here’s one more novel that is sure to find placement at or near the top of many Best of 2009 lists: The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville (Soho Crime).
Just when you thought the invasion of excellent Irish crime writers--a group nicknamed “Celtic Noir”--had ended, along comes Stuart Neville with his first novel. Such impressive colleagues as John Connolly, Ken Bruen, and Gene Kerrigan have joined in advance praise for The Ghosts of Belfast (which was published in the UK as The Twelve). Bruen calls it “the book when the world sits up and goes ‘WOW, the Irish really have taken over the world of crime writing.’”
This story’s central character, Gerry Fegan, is a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) “hard man,” a killer in Northern Ireland, now reduced by the coming of peace to a shambling drunk, haunted by the ghosts of 12 victims who follow him everywhere. In a Belfast bar, Neville writes, “Fegan looked at each of his companions in turn. Of the five soldiers, three were Brits and two were Ulster Defence Regiment. Another of the followers was a cop, his Royal Ulster Constabulary uniform neat and stiff, and two more were Loyalists, both Ulster Freedom Fighters. The remaining four were civilians who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. He remembered doing all of them, but it was the civilians whose memories screamed the loudest. ...They’d been with him since his last weeks in the Maze prison, seven years ago. ... He told one of the prison psychologists about it. Dr. Brady said it was guilt ...”
The only way that Fegan can kill off his ghosts is by tracking down his IRA superiors, the people who ordered that he commit those murders. This he does with violent precision, one by one, until he is alone again. Along the way, author Neville condenses the fear and hate that troubled Ireland for so long, at the same time creating a memorable character with ease and a cool, deceptively straightforward writing style.