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.