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.
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
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.