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The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
A reader might be forgiven for thinking that an ex-IRA assassin with twelve kills to his name would not make a sympathetic protagonist but that’s not the case with Gerry Fagen. Out of The Maze prison after a long stretch as a terrorist, the novel opens with Gerry attempting to drink his demons away. Literally. Gerry is haunted by the ghosts of his victims who now follow him everywhere, until he realizes what they require in order to leave him in peace: an eye for an eye. Gerry has to even the score by killing his old comrades.
And so it goes. Every time Gerry disposes of one of his old cronies, a ghost slips away, bringing momentary relief. But only momentary. In order to find true release, Gerry needs twelve. (The British title for this book is The Twelve.)
The plotting in Ghosts of Belfast is masterful. The way the author puts the reader on Gerry’s side is to make him not only a victim of circumstance, recruited into the IRA as a boy by men who manipulate teenagers hungry for identity and purpose, but the fact that the people he is assassinating in order to appease his ghosts are such reprehensible scum that we have no qualms whatsoever in seeing them dispensed with. No soft-focus romantic portrayals of the IRA here. These are sadistic men who have found an outlet they quite enjoy.
Add to the story a woman and child who fall afoul of the old guard, and whom Gerry must protect, and it’s clear who the reader is rooting for.
This was quite a novel, one of the best and grittiest crime thrillers I think I’ve ever read. A true literary thriller, delivering on both counts.
The violence in The Ghosts of Belfast will not be for everyone. But, like the characters, it’s not glamorized, not your typical action-packed mayhem found in many thrillers; it’s grim and awful. And it feels very real.
If any flaw exists with The Ghosts of Belfast, it might be the very end, which leans just a bit too much toward the paranormal, after the author has done such a good job to avoid that trope. But it fits the story well, and lives up to the title.
They say you have the best conversations with yourself.
How about with the severed head of your hooker girlfriend’s former lover?
When the object of desire in a story is a head in a bag you know you’re onto something.
When it’s the head of a man who impregnated the daughter of a Mexican gangster you know immediately why it’s worth a million dollars.
When the man who longs for it the most is a down-at-the-heel gringo piano player in a Mexican brothel grabbing for one last score, you know all you need to know about the protagonist.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is Sam Peckinpah’s finest film. Made during the director’s alcoholic decline, the movie has a tragicomic power that is relentless, that drives it like a drunk coming home in the middle of the night. He knows the way–or did when he was sober; he’s running on autopilot now and is likely to inflict untold harm on himself and others getting to his destination. But he’s determined to get there. The movie is a parable for Peckinpah’s life. Warren Oates, who plays Bennie, understood this, and wore Peckinpah’s sunglasses throughout the movie, even in bed, channeling his mentor.
Despite the cheesy ‘70s film-making, the signature slow-motion Peckinpah death scenes, the gratuitous boob shots, all of that and more, the strength of the story and distinctiveness of the two leading characters prevail, making us root for a sleazy crook who carries his treasure across the barren Mexican desert in a gunny sack, talking to it, coddling it with ice as it becomes blanketed with flies, even giving it a shower at one point. It’s a journey of self-discovery. Not a happy one. But you probably guessed that.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia remains a cult classic. It’s sucks you in with its dark genius. It’s the kind of film that makes you stop channel-surfing when you happen upon it late at night, and compels you to watch, matter how many times you’ve seen it, no matter how late it is. And next day you’ll be savoring the movie all over again, wishing there were more like it. But there aren’t.