Monday, September 13, 2010

Sequel to The Ghosts of Belfast: Stuart Neville, COLLUSION

UK cover on left, US cover on right.
Dave is almost used to it by now: I plow four chapters into a really good dark thriller/mystery, then pause for air (and to put on a cup of tea) and give him the death count. In COLLUSION, Stuart Neville's breathtaking sequel to The Ghosts of Belfast, my count was five deaths by page 14.

As it happened, I was wrong. But I couldn't know that until five pages later. And there were so many to follow -- and significant deaths, at that -- that the numbers stopped having a lot of impact.

But every death in this violence-haunted book matters and is pounded into effect with vivid detail, as two professional killers circle under the whip of Bull O'Kane, unfortunately still alive at the end of The Ghosts of Belfast. And both Detective Inspector Jack Lennon and the tragic figure of Gerry Fegan commit their lives and souls to saving the people they love and putting an end to the killing.

Unfortunately, Lennon and Fegan, for different reasons, already know they're not good at loving. Oh, they do love, from the bottoms of their murder-stained hearts. But the people they love suffer terrible losses, and it's not hard to see that Lennon and Fegan open the doors to these disasters.

Neville writes from and of Northern Ireland, where bigotry and imperialism and corruption seeded a legacy of bitter feuds and killings. After reading so many books set in Ireland this year, I have a longing to go there, to sample the geography of myth and music. But I would carry with me some sense of the pain of this small nation's people, and I'd stay out of dark places, for sure.

Ironically, Neville's own portrayal of the killers, even the hell-drenched Bull O'Kane, has the intimacy of love. Meticulous details of what killing looks like, feels like, and endures like -- these drive the book as powerfully as its plot, which opens with deadly force and threat, and never lets up for a moment.

But in this second volume (and yes, you'll get a lot more from it if you read The Ghosts of Belfast first -- it will help you bleed more for Gerry Fegan, as well as for Jack Lennon), Neville plunges the blade beneath the skin and muscle of today's Northern Ireland, to the bones that shape the conflict. And they turn out to be not religious difference, not social standing, not even history, but greed: hunger for power and wealth that drives multiple factions into a rotting, festering symbiosis that Neville and his lovers/killers name collusion. It emerges first from an explanation of one of the least likeable people that Lennon has to tackle, the corrupt attorney Patsy Toner, a man rotting with fear:
"I kept telling myself it was over and done with, all settled, all swept under the carpet. But I knew. I knew someone would come for me. And then I heard about Kevin Malloy, so it was just a matter of when. I knew they wouldn't let me go."

"Who's they?" Lennon asked.

"They?" Toner gave a short, sharp laugh that choked in his throat. "'They' is f***ing everyone. The cops, the Brits, the Irish government, the party, f***ing Bull O'Kane."

Lennon eyed Toner, wondering if he had lost it. "That's a lot of people," he said.

"Collusion," Toner said, his voice dropping to a low, angry hiss.
Lennon persists in running interference on the killings, not as a cop or "peeler" but as a man desperate to save a child, and with this, to save something of his soul. "I have a chance to make it right," he explains to an informer before beating him brutally to get the information he needs to track down that chance.

Both Lennon and Fegan -- who I won't describe more here, because there's no way to do so without spoiling both this book and its predecessor -- put their bodies and souls on the line repeatedly in order to ransom their past horrors. And they are unforgettable. They are men who burn with singular passion in spite of all the threats marshaled against them. Lennon will lose and regain his position in the police force repeatedly here, as different factions force him to act in their favor. Fegan will sacrifice what's left of his heart.

But the darkest figure in this volume, the Traveller -- an old term for gypsy, with an evil tint of antisocial malice -- is the one who'll haunt readers, bringing his increasingly infected and damaged eye and his "undead" version of strength to bear across the landscape of graft and crime. Bull O'Kane's liaison with the Traveller exhumes the corpses of the old and newly dead, sending an expanding breath of foul stench that steals the air and sunlight from the land and its people.

COLLUSION is scheduled for hardcover release on October 1 in the United States (it's already available in the UK under the same title -- note that the UK title for The Ghosts of Belfast is The Twelve). An e-version of the book comes to the market sooner, on September 16, also available in a package version with Neville's other title.

If you like 'em dark, here's an necessary addition to your collection. And if you don't think you like "dark" but have read this far ... well, give the book a try. Between the powerful characters, the compelling plot, and the undeniable underlying truths of what violence grows from and into, this is far more than a "crime novel." It's a necessary exploration of our time.


Anonymous said...

Beth, a great review. Soho Press has so many good authors and we love to stock many of their authors at Kindom Books. James R. Benn, Lisa Brackman, David Downing, Delores Gordon Smith, Jacqueline Winspear, David Zimmerman, Cara Black, Henry Chang, Colin Cotterill, Garry Disher, Leighton Gage, Michael Genelin, Adrian Hyland, Stan Jones, Martin Limon, Peter Lovesey, Eliot Pattison, Qiu Xiaolong, Matt Benyon Rees, Mick Herron, John Straley and others. Soho has great authors and good taste in the books that they publish. Dave Kanell, Kingdom Books.

Beth Kanell said...

Thanks, Dave -- and you're right, the Soho Crime imprint is bringing good crime fiction from around the world. What are some other imprints that you watch for? Lately I've been reading more Poisoned Pen Press, too (like Jeffrey Siger's latest, Assassins of Athens).