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.
Back in the dark ages before Kindle, one of my favorite authors was Robert B. Parker. His Spenser PI books were enormously readable: entertaining, witty, with literary allusions for the college grads who read pulp, not to mention some pretty decent plots. Spenser was the updated wise-cracking detective, tough and tender, the lone gunman who could jump through windows or whip up a gourmet meal with one hand while drinking an imported beer with the other. Spenser’s sidekick Hawk introduced the American reading public to perhaps their first minority mystery character, and Spenser’s main squeeze, Susan Silverman (Spenser is monogamous, despite the efforts of many persistent females), added some pop psychology and sophisticated banter. I remember reading my first ‘F’ word in a mystery novel ever in a Spenser book back in the 70s—what a shock. In close to forty books Parker took a tired format and punched it up to become one of the most popular PI series ever. There was even a television show: Spenser for Hire.
When Robert Parker passed away in 2010 I assumed that was the end of Spenser as well, who was perhaps getting to be a little old to be jumping through any more windows (even though Spenser, the man with no first name, never ages). Times were moving on and we had a new cast of grittier, darker, more urban detectives to read.
So when Ace Atkins (author of the acclaimed Quinn Colson ‘Ranger’ series) took on the Spenser books in 2011, I held off. I have never found a book continuation that ever truly worked under a different author (not even Parker’s Chandler). The smudges on the copy were always too evident for my liking.
Well, I was wrong.
I started with Wonderland, simply because it had the highest Amazon ratings, and was more than pleasantly surprised. Spenser is back, version 2.0, with upgraded smart-aleck remarks and current themes. Spenser’s signature humor is even punchier than I remembered. The settings and PI tone are just about perfect to the original. There’s a new sidekick, a Cree Indian named Z, who is kind of a junior Hawk in training, but one with personal issues he must deal with. And the usual cast of good and bad guys. A cross-country airplane flight whizzed right by.
Wonderland opens with some thugs pushing Spenser’s boxing pal Henry Cimoli and his neighbors around, trying to muscle them out of their condo building. Spenser and Z get involved, thinking they’ll shoo off the bad guys and be back to drinking beer and trading one-liners in no time. But the toughs don’t scare easily. Then Spenser finds a disused, broken-down dog track by the name of Wonderland near Henry’s condo complex to be the center of interest for some Vegas hoods and a local Boston politician. When a moneyed real estate developer a la Donald Trump loses his head—literally—Spenser realizes he’s onto something big. Then come the fisticuffs, gunfights and a beautiful unclothed female, along with the usual Spenser fare. But most of all there is Spenser’s classic wit, extremely well-handled by Atkins. Maybe even better than Parker’s. I read an interview with Robert B. Parker (way back before there were Kindles) and recall him saying he essentially wrote one draft of each Spenser book. That was it. Well, towards the end of Spenser version 1.0, it showed. Not so with Atkins, however, who has polished Spenser’s dialog to a shine that dazzles. I found myself rereading much of it for sheer pleasure.
The plot in Wonderland gets a little elaborate past the half-way mark, with an ever-growing cast of bad guys and some questionable motives by the lead suspects, but it doesn’t really matter by then. When the last page came, I was ready for more Spenser version 2.0.
Patricia Highsmith’s wonderfully deviant, amoral characters set her books apart in a genre where sociopaths are the norm and just about essential for any psychological thriller worth its salt. No other suspense author drills down into the inner workings of their players quite like Highsmith did. Much of the reason is that she took her time to build her characters, letting small details work their tension, blending the mundane with the immoral so that we as readers identify with some fairly reprehensible people before we can be repelled by them. A saved letter about an unattended funeral speaks volumes about a young man’s feelings towards his father, allowing us to comprehend his later actions. A man’s love for his young wife makes us overlook a good deal of his criminal behavior. In Highsmith’s novels it’s not easy to discern the hero from the villain and often, as in her popular Ripley books, it’s the criminal (usually murderer) we end up rooting for. The same forces are at work in The Two Faces of January but to a subtler degree. You won’t find a truly good person in these pages but it doesn’t matter. In this story of three expat Americans who cross paths in early 1960s Athens, you’ll want at least one of them to get away with breaking the law.
Rydel is a wandering Peter Pan living off his grandmother’s money, putting off the inevitable trip back to the US to face responsibility and tedium, when he encounters Chester, a crooked stockbroker on the run, who accidentally kills a Greek policeman who is onto him. For no other reason than Chester reminds Rydel of his father, Rydel helps Chester hide the body and acquires forged passports for him and his comely wife, Colette. Chester then invites Rydel to accompany him and Colette to Crete to help the couple navigate their way out of Greece, beyond the reach of the authorities (Rydel speaks Greek and has shady connections). But Colette’s infatuation for Rydel upsets the applecart, and Chester sees red. No one seems to think twice about the death of a policeman, let alone marital vows. It may even feel like love–for two of the three anyway–but it doesn’t end well.
Rydel is one of Highsmith’s better creations, quite affable as he keeps veering away from doing the right thing. He just can’t seem to. The reader understands. Chester is a perfect villain, because he knows who he is. Colette is a well-nuanced temptress, made of real flesh and blood, with a heart and soul. The secondary characters in this novel are all Highsmith quality as well.
I’m not sure why this book is trending towards three stars in the ratings—it’s one of Highsmith’s better ones, with its simple tale of three people who think they can do no wrong but end up doing an awful lot of it.
My only minor disappointment came in the final few pages, where I was hoping for one final twist that didn’t come. The ending I envisioned seemed glaringly obvious to me but Patricia Highsmith clearly wasn’t thinking what I was thinking when she penned this book—or maybe she didn’t want to be predictable. But it works, and redeems one of the characters.
Regardless, by the time Two Faces is rolling, the plot feels inevitable. And that’s the mark of a master.