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When it comes to Ireland, the past is never really past and, as Stuart Neville has compellingly indicated in earlier novels, Irish crime fiction is inescapably historical. In RATLINES, he's made it explicit. The book is set in Dublin in 1963, when the Republic is holding its breath in anticipation of a visit by a native son several times removed, John F. Kennedy. It is a matter of national pride that nothing go wrong, and Charles Haughey, future Taoiseach (Prime Minister), now Minister of Justice, is determined that nothing will. Thus when a number of German émigrés are found murdered, he instructs Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Intelligence Department to look into the cases and bring an end to the killings. But most of all, he is to see to it that the knowledge that they were all Nazis, somehow granted residence in Ireland, remains a secret.
Ryan is a man who is, in the most literal sense, a borderline character. Ex-Army, he's not been able to find a civilian occupation to pursue and thus is back in government service. The army he was in, however, was the British Army during the Second World War (what Irish officials were pleased to call "the Emergency.") His motives were not exalted - he merely saw the war as a way to get out of Ireland, not as an opportunity to serve the British or defeat the Nazis. That was close to twenty years ago, but no one in his home town is likely to let him forget he is viewed as a traitor. He's only been able to visit his parents in Carrickmacree under the cover of darkness for years. That he is a Protestant doesn't help.
Even Haughey, who has brought Ryan to the investigation, doesn't like or trust him;. Haughey is, of course, an historical figure, a controversial politician who led Fianna Fáil and who went from scandal to power and back to scandal over a long political career. Though there are those who are passionate supporters, Stuart Neville is not one of them. Nor is Haughey the only genuine historical personage making an appearance. He is hand in glove with Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian Nazi famous for perhaps over-hyped deeds of derring-do but certainly both corrupt and violently single-minded in pursuit of his own well-being. And as well, there is Celestin Lainé, a Breton nationalist whose politics led him to collaborate with the Nazis under the misapprehension that they were merely ardent nationalists like himself. It was an error that many Irish nationalists also made and one that accounts for the rather startling number of Nazis hiding out in the Emerald Isle after the war. Many were placed through the good offices of Roman Catholic abbots and bishops, utilizing the "ratlines," (escape routes) of the title.
It is a sordid history and one that is only beginning to be widely known. Neville puts it to good use in what, despite his disclaimer, is not quite "just a story." The events he details are fictional, but they are based on a squalid truth. As Ryan dives deeper and deeper into the morass, though his own personal war history has to some extent immunized him against shock, he finds he lacks the heart to protect Skorzeny against those who are seeking to use him to advance their own ends.
Up to this point, the book is very strong indeed - tension-filled, sharply observed, and noir as you please. But then Neville does what he has done before, in the Belfast novels about the aftermath of the Troubles, THE TWELVE and COLLUSION. The trajectory of the plot makes a sudden shift, violence and retribution takes over, and Ryan, whom we thought a man of honour, turns out to be not a great deal more morally sound than those who have been turning his stomach along the way.
Even though RATLINES blunts its point in its final pages, it is still has a lot to say about Ireland's past and, perhaps, its present. If any still remain who are still in the grip of a sentimental dream of the past glories of the IRA, Neville has a word or two to say. Admittedly he puts them in the mouth of the reprehensible Celestin Lainé, but Albert Ryan would clearly agree. Lainé is a disillusioned nationalist, one, who like his Irish counterparts, presumed that the enemy of his enemy was his friend. His collaboration with the Nazis led him to do terrible things, and looking back on his choice to flee his native land and its struggle behind, he acknowledges a crushing disappointment when he finally meets the current crop of Irish revolutionaries. "In truth they were a disjointed network of farmers, socialists and fascists, bigots and blowhards, an army whose war had come and gone decades before. They had sided with the Nazis during the war, even formulating plans to assist the Germans in an invasion of Northern Ireland to oust the British presence there, but they proved themselves incapable of such ambitious scemes....And now the best the IRA had to offer was ill educated louts...full of songs about the virtuous struggle of revolution and precious little else."
Although this remark comes fairly early in the book, there's nothing to dissipate its ashy bitterness nor, in the end, no character that provides much in the way of hope. Neville's view is unremittingly noir and perhaps that's why he can't get out of his novels without killing off a fair amount of the cast.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2012
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