In Northern Ireland, the past may never die, but in Stuart Neville’s vision, its people certainly do — often in the most twisted and horrible ways. The current master of neo-noir detective fiction, Neville excels at pairing historical crimes and current punishment.
Usually, as in his “The Ghosts of Belfast,’’ that means retribution for sins real and imagined in the Irish “Troubles,” when the IRA battled the English and Americans were often pulled in for good measure. In “Ratlines,’’ his latest, the author, who lives in Northern Ireland, goes for an even broader global reach: following World War II-era disputes into 1963, just as the United States’ first Irish-American president is about to visit the land of his ancestors.
The book’s setup cuts right to the point. “You don’t look like a Jew,” says one old German. The elderly man is sitting in a guesthouse on Galway Bay and addressing a visitor who has come to kill him. He knows what is about to happen because he isn’t the first: A series of former Nazis have recently been murdered, despite the relative amnesty they’ve found in Ireland. It’s a distasteful crime, but not one that evokes a lot of heat among the general populace, one way or the other.
Many Irish, after all, sympathized with the Germans during the war simply because they shared a hatred for the English. However, by the time this book opens, some years after the war, the German crimes against humanity are well known, and those private “ratlines,” the routes by which wealthy Nazis had been able to escape to pseudonymous new lives, were shutting down.
At this point, with the impending presidential visit, Ireland’s minister of justice would prefer that the murders cease — or at least be temporarily hushed up — before it becomes public that all the dead Nazis had been granted asylum by the Irish government.
To handle the job, the ministry taps Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the directorate of intelligence. “[I]t’s vital this be dealt with quietly,” he is told. “Out of the public gaze, as it were.”
It’s a brilliant choice. Ryan is a dutiful professional soldier who put himself outside the sectarian conflict when, in an early and perhaps rash act, he enlisted with the British Army to fight the Nazis. This perceived betrayal caused his family members to become outcasts in their Northern Ireland village. It has also kept him from forming ties outside of his regiment, which makes him particularly vulnerable when an attractive woman, who may or may not be doing innocent work for the ministry, is introduced.
Ryan is a classic conflicted protagonist, a soft-spoken man torn by his own motives, prejudices, and sense of loyalty. He is, however, also a dogged soldier, and when his opponents discredit him he fights single-mindedly to prove them wrong. But the solving of this case, or rather, the squelching of it, grows more complicated than even he first anticipated. The obvious motives of retribution bring him into contact with Israeli operatives, but it turns out his own government is dealing with its complicity as well. And when a woman whose guilt may have been excusable in the grand scheme dies, Ryan becomes more personally involved.
What results is a grand mash-up of Nazi-era schemes, Irish politics, and 1960s global maneuvers, written in Neville’s terse, tense prose. One final twist may strain credibility a bit, as an apparent ally turns betrayer and then flips once again. But by the end, it hardly matters. Ryan’s dark worldview has been confirmed — his world is worse off than even he had imagined. But like all good noir heroes, he has chosen to seek the truth, bloody though it may be.