Thursday, September 24, 2015

Depths of Evil, Roots of Crime, in THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville is the master of "Belfast Noir," gritty crime fiction set in and around Belfast, Northern Ireland. The port city is a living memorial to "The Troubles" -- the political and religious fever that drove Neville's earlier series, where violence kept emerging in successive family generations, responding to the horrors and repression of the 20th century (which, let's face it, were rooted in turn in the "Potato Famine" oppression).

In THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, Neville forsakes his series and its close ties to recent history. Instead, through two powerful women in law enforcement and a pair of very damaged brothers, he probes the nature of evil and the way it spreads. The contagion of the murder committed by 12-year-old Ciaran Devine and his older brother Thomas has infected DCI Serena Flanagan, who received Ciaran's confession eight years earlier.

Flanagan's never quite believed the confession, though. Maternal instincts, perhaps? The young foster child seemed too vulnerable, too much manipulated by his darker brother. And it's clear to Flanagan that Ciaran's insistence on being the only killer of the boys' foster father -- leaving Thomas as accomplice -- has saved Thomas from a lengthy prison sentence and made sure that Ciaran's own was "just" the eight years assigned to a child.

Flanagan's kept her doubts close to her chest. But that, in turn, has festered: Her return to police work at the same time of Ciaran's release from prison is a return from radiation treatment for breast cancer. Although she's not especially introspective, Neville leaves little doubt that Flanagan's urge to pull young Ciaran -- now a hormonally confused young man -- to her breast may be a toxic mistake.

Then there's Paula Cunningham, the dedicated Probation Service officer who'll escort Ciaran out of prison and into the monitored life ahead of him.
Cunningham had entered the Probation Service twelve years ago ... As a postgraduate student, she had spent summers working on the wards of psychiatric units, then a year in Maghaberry prison, counselling inmates. She had learned things in those days that would stay with her until her last breath, like the terrible cost of casual violence, and how poorly the system dealt with those who inflicted it.
But was the action of the Devine boys casual violence, or was it planned revenge? And what revenge may the surviving family member of that long-ago foster household desire?

While the twisted menace of Ciaran and Thomas is a meticulous portrait of how abuse can blossom as violence, Neville's compelling investigation of what drives DCI Flanagan becomes the counterstroke of the plot.
Flanagan had seen many murder scenes. The ugliness of the act, the indignity of it. ... Sudden and violent death rarely visited those with stable lives, with loving families, with purpose to their days. More often than not, murder happened on drunken nights between friends brought together by their mutual dependencies, petty arguments exploding into bloodshed, kitchen knives buried in throats, heads cracked open by heavy objects. No planning, no intent, only rage unleashed.

But this was different.
Flanagan's effort to get Ciaran to tell the truth involves showing him that he can survive without being a puppet of his malicious older brother. But by threatening the bond of the brothers, Flanagan unleashes a tide of rage and violence against all the people around them -- especially these two women in law enforcement. Is it worth it? How good are her instincts? What evidence can there be, or what subsequent admissions?

Don't look for quintessential "Irishness" in this one -- aside from the scraps of Belfast language and the slightly different criminal justice system, THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND could take place in any harsh urban environment, even in a suburb. And that broad application, coupled with relentless insight into abuse and its consequences, is what makes this book an instant classic of crime and investigation.

There's a rumor that Flanagan will be a series character herself. That's good news: Stuart Neville's decision to confront crime's long roots may benefit us all. And to publisher Soho Crime, again -- thanks.

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