Stuart Neville is one of the most distinctive of the new crime writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland. His debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast (2009), was a sort-of ghost story, featuring a former Republican hitman, Gerry Fagan, who is haunted by the 12 victims of his own political killings. In the UK, the novel was released as The Twelve — perhaps the memory of Britain’s own ghosts of Belfast dictated the change. Neville is among several current crime writers (Deon Meyer and Tana French, for instance) who use a rolling cast of characters, with a minor character in one novel emerging as the central character in the next. Gerry Fagan is still around for the second book, Collusion (2010), but the central focus has shifted to policeman Jack Lennon, whose disastrous personal and professional life plays out in the next two books as well, Stolen Souls (2011), and The Final Silence (2014). Those We Left Behind, the fifth book in the series and Neville’s sixth novel (Ratlines is a standalone historical thriller dealing with escaped Nazis in Ireland after the war published in 2014), shifts the central focus to DCI Serena Flanagan, who was dealing with the fallout of Lennon’s last case and with her own breast cancer diagnosis in The Final Silence.
On the day Flanagan returns to work after her cancer treatment, she is sidelined to desk duty but also asked to meet with Paula Cunningham, the parole officer for Ciaran Devine, being released from prison after serving time as a juvenile for a brutal murder committed when he was 12 years old, a case in which Flanagan was deeply involved. She was removed from that case before the trial (for reasons we witness during a series of flashbacks to the investigation and interrogation during that case), but was convinced that Ciaran had confessed to protect his older brother, Thomas, who would have been sentenced as an adult.
Ciaran and Thomas are entwined in a destructive (to them and to others) folie a deux, the younger brother emotionally dependent on the older, who controls him with emotional and physical abuse. After their father died in an accident and their mother succumbed to drug abuse, they were put in foster homes. The crime for which they both went to jail (Thomas for a shorter sentence, as an accessory) was the murder of their foster father.
As the flashbacks illuminate the facts of the original case, the present-day story follows Flanagan and Cunningham as they attempt to deal with the socially inept Ciaran, damaged by his time in prison, his terrible upbringing, his near-total dependence on his brother, and perhaps some degree of disability akin to autism. The reader is witness to Ciaran’s own struggles as well as the rage for revenge on the part of the murdered foster father’s surviving son. While Cunningham is trying to manage Ciaran’s parole in the face of Thomas’s reassertion of control over him, Flanagan is caught up in both her difficulties of adjusting to her status as a cancer survivor (which presents difficulties for her at home and at work) and her unprofessionally close relationship with Ciaran, who bonded with her at the time of the original investigation as a sort of mother-substitute but with troubling overtones.
The plot of Those We Left Behind follows an arc that it shares with some of Neville’s earlier books, descending inexorably toward a final confrontation. But the social situation that dominated the earlier books, the continuation of remainder of anger and violence after the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is replaced here with a more universal problem: the damage inflicted upon the most vulnerable, the children, in the collapse of troubled families. That is not to say that the children are portrayed as innocent in any way: Neville is far too subtle a writer to rely on any simple view of human nature. No one in this story, in fact, is without guilt. The resolution occurs in an appropriately barren location from the brothers’ past, in the spectral shadow of their dead mother, in a barrage of violence precipitated by Ciaran’s discovery of the limits to his festering relationship to his brother.
There is an important subplot dealing with the apparent suicide of Flanagan’s friend from a cancer support group that provides a coda showing the DCI’s investigative skills in a more favorable light than is the case in the main plot; the subplot also provides a coda that, if not positive, at least provides an example of a conventional variety of justice, something that is not possible in the case of the Devine brothers and their crimes. If their family name has echoes with any sort of divinity, it is with the old gods and the Old Testament, where stories of fraternal violence and harsh retribution abound.