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.
The Cain File
The Quito assignment was supposed to be a milk run for Special Forensic Accounting Agent Maggie de la Cruz: just hand over the two-million-dollar payoff and get the signatures of a corrupt oil minister and two oil-company bigwigs. Then stand back while the arrests are made.
But that’s not quite how things play out. When the sting is sabotaged and Minister Beltran wants the two million anyway, Maggie says no.
Bullets start to fly. And Maggie has to run.
Back home in the U.S., licking her wounds, Maggie learns that Minister Beltran has just been kidnapped by a deadly eco-terrorist group protecting the Amazon jungle from oil drilling.
The Agency’s covert-operations section needs to send Maggie back to South America, along with Field Agent John Rae Hutchens, to rescue Beltran for, ironically, another two million.
Another milk run? Perhaps—if everyone involved doesn’t have a secret agenda.
Events continue to go off-kilter: the suspicious detainment of a field agent at Bogotá International, leaving Maggie on her own; terrorists who seem more interested in the payoff money than the cause; case handlers with shadowy links that can’t be easily explained; and worse.
And agent de la Cruz must deal with it.
Any way she can.
The Cain File is not yet available … stay posted.
Are you a literary agent looking for a fast-paced international thriller that will appeal to readers of Ludlum and John le Carré and fans of Homeland? Let’s talk!
Email: Max Tomlinson
This is a thoroughly engaging, well-crafted police procedural set in the UK that will appeal to fans of Prime Suspect and the like. Kim Stone, the protagonist DI, is sort of a young jaded Jane Tennison with issues, and a gruff person as a result but, as one might expect, her heart is in the right place. She gets the job done, brandishing her acerbic wit (and temper).
When an employee connected to a state run institution is found drowned in her bathtub, DI Stone begins to investigate the murders of three unfortunate girls who are found buried in a shallow grave outside a former orphanage from hell. More bodies pile up. And maybe one or two more. The story itself might stretch the reader’s belief system a bit but it’s a well-told one, with excellent investigation details, nuanced supporting characters (I love Bryant, especially when he – [mini spoiler] – adopts the dogs), terrific descriptions of the Black Country locale and a genuine commentary on institutional systems that create monsters and misfits out of their inhabitants and administrators.
I would easily have given this book five stars if not for…
*** SPOILER AHEAD ***
Multiple murderers. Come on! For those of us who enjoy trying to piece the clues together and ‘solve the crime’, this is such a disappointment. The author is in good company here (Gillian Flynn, anyone?) but it’s not playing fair with the reader. A writer who works this hard can surely tell a compelling mystery without obfuscating the story with over-complicated plot lines and pulling the wool over our eyes the easy way.
Having said that, I would recommend Silent Scream to fans of crime fiction, and personally look forward to more in this series.
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,
Sixteen-year-old Rae Dolly is in a serious bind: her meth-dealing father has disappeared and missed an important court date. If Jessup Dolly isn’t located soon, then the family that Rae holds together through sheer will-power will lose their humble Ozark cabin. Although a mountain code binds the Dolly clan in some ways, a brutal undercurrent of reprisal makes it near impossible for Rae to learn the whereabouts of her father. There are some things people just don’t talk about in a community where speed has replaced moonshine as the economic engine and drug of choice. Rae’s father is one of them.
After sustaining a ferocious beating, Rae finally sways her criminal uncle Teardrop over to her side and the novel takes an even darker turn as we head into the mountains in the middle of winter to learn the truth about Rae’s father.
The plot of Winter’s Bone is straightforward and economic, with all the tension of a thriller, as Rae goes from one grim haunt to another asking questions no one wants to answer. In less than two hundred pages Daniel Woodrell’s rich yet gritty prose builds a momentum that is part suspense, part parable. The writing is stripped down and minimalist in places but also functions on a literary level, leaving powerful images rippling in the reader’s mind without getting in the way of Woodrell’s noir narrative. This is no run-of-the-mill page turner. The characters are tough but tender, sympathetic without being sentimental. Rae’s two little brothers and emotionally damaged mother are only two examples of people confined to a world who aren’t stereotypes.
If there’s any criticism of this book, it’s that the storyline is possibly too direct in places, almost predictable, like a mystery where the protagonist is taken through required confrontations and scenes, and readers of the genre might see this as somewhat underdeveloped. But the originality of the writing, authenticity of setting, and the story questions raised more than make up for that. In Winter’s Bone, less is more. Life is unforgiving in Rae’s world but love for family is just as strong, if not stronger.
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.