Monday, February 04, 2013

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville's new novel is something of a departure: his previous novels deal with the violent aftermath of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, after the peace accord. Beginning with The Ghosts of Belfast, these were some of the most accomplished crime novels of the current Irish wave of crime writing. Ratlines goes back in time, to the aftermath of another war, World War II.

Albert Ryan is a Protestant Irishman who fought for the British during the war. Now an odd man out (both as an ex-soldier in civilian society and as both a Protestant and someone who didn't follow the orthodoxy of Irish neutrality. One aspect of that neutrality has come back to haunt him, along with those he killed (an overlap with The Ghosts of Belfast, though not emphasized here in the same way as that earlier novel).

Like most readers, I was not aware of the Irish government's policy of giving sanctuary to Nazis and Nazi collaborators after the end of the war. On the eve of John Kennedy's presidential visit to Ireland, someone is raising the profile of these unsavory characters by systematically murdering them. Charles Haughey, justice minister and future prime minister, enlists Ryan to find the murderers and to report not only to the government but to the most high-profile of the Nazi "guests," a famous strategist in the war. The title refers to lines of communication and transportation set up to rescue war criminals from the victorious allies, in the aftermath of war and even later.

So far, it sounds like a fairly conventional thriller. But the alliances and betrayals, the sharp characterizations, and the uncertain morality of all concerned keep the story leaning over the edge of conventional storytelling into an edgier and more interesting territory. Ryan is particularly interesting: he's not a leading man (in terms of looks and savoir-faire), a genius, or a martial-arts star (though there's a sort of parody of the James Bond sort of martial expertise, in a fencing match). He's a "good soldier" with little to gain or lose in this investigation that's been forced on him. He can only negotiate as best he can the dangerous and violent situation he's been thrust into.

The whole post-war-Nazi thing has been much mined by crime and thriller writers, but Neville uses it in a novel way, to reveal something about Irish history as well as the characters in the story. Though historical fiction (even recent history) is not my usual cup of tea, Ratlines is an excellentn read that held my interest completely.

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