Sunday, October 09, 2016

SO SAY THE FALLEN, Belfast Noir from Stuart Neville

Last year around this time, Stuart Neville's Those We Left Behind brought us Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Serena Flanagan on the Belfast police force, an investigator whose personal commitment to determining the truth of a crime takes her into "contagious" contact with evil that drains from a generation of malice. In SO SAY THE FALLEN (Soho Press), Flanagan's struggling to find her way out of an explosive episode of posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. It looks like she's going to lose at least her marriage and probably her children as she clings to the structure of work to hold herself together. Work, and overwork. Who hasn't been there, done that -- or at least witnessed it?

But when work involves murderers and other malicious narcissists  -- blackmailers, cheaters, liars -- embracing it is dangerous to the soul. Flanagan's son doesn't want her to put him to bed or even read him a story. Her daughter's even more blunt: "You're never here." She knows her husband is almost ready to leave.

With a crisis like that at home, she ought to let go of the death that her supervisor wants declared a sympathetic suicide, the slide into death-by-pills of a gravely injured and maimed man. But the case clings to her, with those small indications that pull a good detective into compulsion to investigate. Along the way, torn in spirit and emotion, Flanagan confides something of her own despair to the local church rector, the Reverend Peter McKay.

And here is where Neville's powerful ability to explore what haunts us becomes vivid and compelling -- not with the paranormal strands of his earlier series, but in heartache and despair and the struggle for something to believe in. In Flanagan's confession, the pain of life along the harsh edge of community spills out in, for her, "every rotten thing that festered in her soul."

McKay has his own secrets, as we readers already know. But as he listens to Flanagan, he sets aside his urge to likewise confess, and instead becomes the blunt but kind voice of a true spiritual advisor:
"If your job's making you miserable, then quit," he said. "Simple, isn't it?"

Flanagan shook her head, fumbling for an answer. "No, it's ... it's not ..."

He smiled that kind smile of his, the one that warmed his eyes. "No, it's not that simple, is it? We have this in common, you know. Neither of us has a nine-to-five job we can leave behind at the end of the day. We don't work in some office, watching the clock, waiting for home time. You don't stop being a police officer when you go home any more than I stop being a priest. ... Then you are your job, your job is you. Same for me."

"And I am my family. I need them, even if they don't need me."

His fingers tightened on her wrist, a small pressure. "Then the answer lies somewhere between the other two. It's like two sides of an arch. One can't stand without the other."

"Then what do I do?" she asked, another sob catching in her throat.

"What you came here for," McKay said. "You pray."
Given that support, it's no surprise that Flanagan also binds herself to the catastrophe that unfolds for this kind, if somewhat naive, man.

But Neville takes her through brutal confrontations with the force of psychopathic evil, before Flanagan has a chance to try to make things right.

I am still asking myself -- because I found Neville's "Ghosts of Belfast" series so compelling -- whether this twist toward Flanagan in the Belfast author's newer series is as indelibly marked by place as the earlier books. The more I ponder SO SAY THE FALLEN, the more I think Neville is indeed framing a narrative of loss and potential redemption that belongs in this war-wounded landscape. And consider me committed to this author crime novels, here and in the future, as a way of examining the important question of what makes our lives (and deaths) not only human, but worth the effort.

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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