Since 2009’s “The Ghosts of Belfast” — published in the United Kingdom as “The Twelve” — Stuart Neville has been masterfully capturing the mean streets of Belfast in a series of thrillers, each arguably more powerful than the last. His latest, “Those We Left Behind,” in which he ups his game by about 10 notches, is a robust police procedural that also impressively plumbs his varied characters’ psychological vulnerabilities.
This novel marks the welcome reappearance of DCI Serena Flanagan from “The Final Silence.’’ She has just returned to work following breast-cancer surgery when she is hit with the news that Ciaran Devine, a 19-year-old convicted “schoolboy killer” whose case she investigated seven years earlier, is being released from custody.
Back then, he and his older brother Thomas were involved in the brutal beating death of their foster father, in retaliation, they claimed, for his sexual abuse of Thomas. Ciaran confessed to the killing while Thomas was deemed an accessory and has been out of detention for two years. Flanagan was convinced at the time that Thomas was, in fact, the killer, but Ciaran’s unwavering confession was enough to put him away for the crime. Of those the brothers left behind after the killing, their foster mother is gone, a suicide, while their foster brother, Daniel, is a walking ball of frustration, rage, and grief.
Paula Cunningham, the probation officer assigned to monitor Ciaran’s transition to life outside, consults with Flanagan for background information and soon finds herself developing her own assessment of the brothers’ current and past situation: It quickly becomes apparent that all those involved in the ramifications of the murder are caught in a strangling net that tightens day by day.
Meanwhile, Flanagan’s closest friend in her cancer-support group, Penny Walker, shares the unwelcome news that her own cancer has metastasized, leaving her mere months to live. But when Penny and her husband, Ronnie, crackle across Flanagan’s police radio as part of an incident report, Flanagan has one more mystery on her mind.
This is one unyieldingly chilling tale, perfectly told. There’s the literal chill that runs through it, a thread that winds its way from one scene to another, from the sudden freeze that occurs when Flanagan moves her husband’s hand to her scarred breast amid a moment of passion, to the frosty demeanor of Daniel’s mother in his childhood memories.
Whether he is giving a nod to a marginal character — say, the colleague of Flanagan’s who “enjoyed being a cop, acted like he was constantly on camera in some TV drama” — or describing Daniel’s drunken, self-destructive odyssey through downtown Belfast, Neville employs a quiet, clear, resonant style. That same approach offers an intimate illustration of what sudden freedom feels like for Ciaran as he “remembers what to do at the crossings. Press the button, wait for the green man. Soon the chitter-chatter racket of the shopping centre is all around him. Parents and children. Whole families, and people on their own. Just like him. Ciaran is terrified. There’s too much noisy noise. Too many people, too close to him. His hands shake so he keeps them in his pockets.”
And Neville is equally strong on Thomas, the world’s creepiest brother, who paces through life flashing his teeth, killing baby birds, dragging a singularly sinister tension along with him, all-enveloping like a cape, wherever he goes: “Thomas never spends thought on good things. He is restless, his fingers tapping on his thighs, the soles of his shoes grinding on the fine layer of sand that coats the concrete under [his] feet.”
As it turns out, in the bigger picture, Daniel is not the only one left behind by others’ destruction, and what gradually but intractably emerges from Neville’s sixth book is a nuanced take on the too-often inexorable cycle of violence. Uplifting this book is not, but Neville does, just as firmly, remind us of possible touch points where the fragile but definite potential to disrupt that cycle remain.
THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND
By Stuart Neville
Soho, 359 pp., $27.95
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.