Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Ghosts of Belfast: Stuart Neville

Gerry Fegan is a former killer for the IRA living in Belfast after being released from the Maze Prison. Many of those he worked with while in the IRA have transformed from gunmen (or their bosses) to politicians. After returning from years in prison, Fegan has not made the adjustment to civilian life so smoothly. He is haunted by twelve ghosts of innocent victims that he was ordered to kill or was responsible for their deaths by his actions. The ghosts include: a mother and infant, a schoolboy, a butcher, an RUC constable.

The Ghosts of Belfast (published in the UK as The Twelve) is a revenge novel, with Gerry Fegan seeking some sort of redemption for the deaths and pain he has caused. It is strange to say that a book this dark, filled with violence and death, can be considered an enjoyable read. Yet I found it a compelling read. Even though it is somewhat out of my comfort zone, I didn't want to put it down. One of the downers of the novel is that there are few if any characters that the reader can like. I could have some sympathy with the protagonist, and that is pretty much necessary to any enjoyment of the novel.

There is a very good overview and review of this book at SHOTS Crime and Thriller Ezine by Ruth Dudley Edwards, a historian and author of non-fiction books and crime novels.

Would I recommend this book? If the violence and dark tone doesn't bother you, and if you are interested in a view of life in post-Troubles Northern Ireland, then yes.


I am including quotes from this review at The Guardian because I think it best describes the negatives and positives of the book, for prospective readers:
The Twelve is a brilliant thriller: unbearably tense, stomach-churningly frightening. Fegan and his nemesis, the government double agent Davy Campbell, are magnificent creations: not sympathetic, but never wholly repugnant. And just as haunting as Fegan's apparitions are Neville's stunning reimaginings of the darkest atrocities: the bombs, the beatings, the torture, the point-blank murders. Then there's the farm in south Armagh, setting for the novel's grisly climax, presided over by the almost mythically violent Bull O'Kane, the last bastion of the old guard, unchanged, impenetrable, rooted in the past.
It is impressive indeed to create an entertainment out of such material, but more than that, Neville has boldly exposed post-ceasefire Northern Ireland as a confused, contradictory place, a country trying to carve out a future amid a peace recognised by the populace as hypocritical, but accepted as better than the alternative. This is the best fictional representation of the Troubles I have come across, a future classic of its time. Stuart Neville has finally given Northern Ireland the novel its singular history deserves.
You will note below that this is the first book in a series called the Jack Lennon Investigations. This book seems more like a prequel, since in this book Jack Lennon is a minor character. 

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Publisher:   Soho Press, 2009
Length:       326 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jack Lennon Investigations #1
Setting:      Belfast, Northern Ireland
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

14 comments:

  1. I'm pretty sure THE TWELVE sits on the pile with a couple of his others. Who knows when I'll read it though. Interesting subject matter to me and I'm pretty sure the violence and dark tone will only add to my eventual enjoyment when I do get there. A cheery book to end the year on....haha!

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    1. You are correct, Col, not a very cheery book for the end of the year. In some ways a much better read than I expected, but definitely more violent and thrillerish than I expected. I thought both the style and subject matter would appeal to you.

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  2. Tracy - This does sound compelling even if not exactly uplifting. You make a very interesting point about whether one needs to like (or at least feel sympathy for) at least one of the characters in order to really enjoy a book. That may well be true...

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    1. Margot, seems like several books I have read lately have had lots of unappealing characters, yet still been very good reads. Variety is the spice of life.

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  3. Hey Tracy, I read this and had the same reading experience. I thought it was compelling conflict with Gery Fegan having to redeem himself/his actions in order to find peace. I've not read any of the sequels since the author changed the leading protagonist. My viewpoint was that Fegan would have made for a far more interesting protagonist but I've been told by a friend that the change was necessary. I'll read the others eventually but not compelled to anytime soon.

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    1. Keishon, I kind of feel the same way about continuing the series. I liked the writing well enough so I know I want to give it a try sometime. On the other hand, no rush, I have way to many books right now on my shelves.

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  4. TracyK: Your review reminded me how impressed I was by the book. I went back and looked at my review and found a couple of comments that summed up the book for me. I found the story compelling but harrowing and that forgiveness was a word lost in Northern Ireland in the last four decades.

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    1. Bill, I did go check out your review on your blog, and the post on Stuart Neville. Both very interesting. I found this a hard read but the violence did not go beyond my limits of enjoyment.

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  5. I came across Stuart Neville for the first time this year, when I read a short story he contributed to the Oxfam crime story anthology. It really impressed me, and I do have it in mind to read more by him, so will make a note of this one....

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    1. Thanks for reminding me of the Oxfam short story anthology, Moira. I am doing a short story challenge to motivate me to try out short stories this year. That would be a great collection to try. I already have plenty of short stories, but... the paperback edition becomes available here in May so I will preorder it.

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  6. I am still conflicted by this book though I read it a couple of years ago...its depiction of the political and social environment was terrific but the singular tone of despair - and the level of violence - made me unwilling to revisit the series.

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    1. I did see your review, Bernadette, and I agreed with many of your assessments ... plus the fact that you are so eloquent in your reviews. I wish I could do that. I am hoping that there is some redeeming value to the characters and events in the second book. Otherwise I will not continue beyond it.

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  7. Tracy, this reads like a leaf out of one of Jack Higgins novels which has its fair share of ex-IRA gunmen and ideologues. I'd be interested in reading "The Ghosts of Belfast."

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    1. I think Ghost of Belfast is worth a try, Prashant. Now I have got to read some Jack Higgins books. I have a few on the kindle.

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