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.
That’s correct. Don’t read Sendero, an edgy thriller set in Peru, a country still haunted by the dirty war of twenty years ago.
Listen to it!
Sendero is now available as an audio book.
Downloadable from Audible or iTunes, you can listen to the book that Kirkus rated as one of the top 100 Indie novels of 2012, as narrated by the incomparable Sarah Van Sweden. Sarah is a terrific reader and a woman of many voices. I found myself caught up in her rendition of Sendero and believe me, I’ve read this book myself more than a few times. I know what happens. The lady can read the phone book and make it suspenseful. Check out the audio sample and see if you don’t agree.
If you’re new to Audible and sign up, you can get the audio book for free. If you’re more of an iTunes type, you may click here,
If you read suspense and have not read Patricia Highsmith, first of all, shame on you and second, you have some weird and wonderful (and terrifying) books ahead. No one wrote like Highsmith. Her novels deliver in the classic thriller/mystery/suspense department for those simply looking for an edgy ride but they’re also literate and truly unique. Her characters are odd, not in the quirky sense, but disturbed and wretched. And real.
Highsmith wasn’t afraid to take time to get a story rolling, as many authors are (especially nowadays) and although that may fail her from time to time, the reader has time to soak in the world she creates with those deviant but everyday characters. She’s written a dog or two (IMHO) but every great author has. It’s part of reaching for the kind of stories that, more often than not, leave a mark.
About a third of the way through The Glass Cell, I thought I was reading one of Highsmith’s dogs. I’ve already read all her well-known work (Strangers on a Train is a must-read. If you don’t believe me, believe Hitchcock who made Highsmith’s first novel into an excellent movie) and thought I was scraping the bottom of the Highsmith barrel.
There are real flaws with the first third of Glass Cell, the story of a man who goes to prison for six years on a fraudulent charge. Key events happen off camera, important characters are not physically described, and Highsmith’s slow-burn prose feels like it’s meandering.
But then Philip Carter, our ill-fated anti-hero, gets out of prison, physically and mentally damaged, craving morphine, and learns that his beautiful wife has most likely been having a six-year-long affair with his lawyer. Then the people who set Carter up come back into the picture. It seems inevitable that Carter does some of the things he does.
And the reader ends up rooting for a milquetoast turned drug-addled psychopath. I was never a huge fan of Ripley, one of Highsmith’s more fantastic characters, but Carter had my complete sympathy no matter what he did to those who treated him so poorly. Highsmith is famous for her Ripley books (and the first one should be on everyone’s to-read list) but whereas Ripley is prickly and frightening, Carter is your unstable friend who just can’t catch a break.
Stay inside The Glass Cell and you won’t be disappointed.
But, unfortunately, it’s true.
After an epidemic of terrorism, Argentina’s dirty war began and a military junta ran the country from 1976-1983. And the junta did put a stop to much of the terrorism. People could now go back into downtown Buenos Aires without fearing bank explosions and kidnappings. But the generals in power didn’t stop there. To be on the safe side, they decided to clean house. If you were a leftist, knew a leftist, went to a party meeting in college, were a university teacher, had long hair, or someone gave up your name-often as a result of torture where fifteen names were required-then a government-issue Ford Falcon might just be waiting outside your front door on your birthday.
The National Intelligence System (SIDE) liked to arrest people on their birthday—another touch that might fare well in a late-night thriller.
The stories are too horrific to detail. They’re available for anyone who wants to do a search. But an organized network of garages and detention centers, right in the middle of Buenos Aires, one of the most modern, cosmopolitan cities in the world—the Paris of South America—swallowed up the desaparecidos (disappeared ones). While porteños went to see Saturday Night Fever or sipped cappuccinos, twenty to thirty thousand of their countrymen vanished. Of those that did return, most were silenced by systematic torture on an industrial scale.
If the arrestee was a young mother, there were plenty of childless military couples waiting for her soon-to-be orphaned child. And if she was pregnant, after a caesarian operation, she might be executed. Or allowed to live long enough to nurse the infant before it was given up. Then the mother might be given a sedative and taken for a late night flight over the Rio de la Plata. Where she and others were tossed out.
Argentina is finally coming to grips with this dark episode in their recent history. Today many of those responsible have been sentenced as the country moves forward.
Meanwhile an entire generation has had to come to terms with what their government did to them.
Before we smugly condemn what happened in Argentina we might look at ourselves. The United States and Argentina have much in common. We are very similar countries: made up of immigrants who cherish opportunity, a way of life, liberty. We both abhor terrorism. We share similar political frameworks. And we are also people who might let go of freedoms in order to reestablish order. Have we not already done some of that here? Who says we won’t do more-if pushed?
About five hundred Argentines are said to be “adopted” children of the disappeared ones. They are in their mid-thirties today.
Some don’t want to know their origins.
Who can blame them?
FYI: My latest novel – Lethal Dispatch – features Argentina’s stolen children as a theme.