Neville, Stuart - 'The Twelve'
Gerry Fegan is a washed-up IRA hit-man, a stone-cold killer, drowning in booze and haunted by the ghosts of twelve of his victims. Literally. 'The Twelve' are ghosts who appear out of the shadows of a Belfast supposedly enjoying 'post conflict' peace and prosperity, not only to remind Fegan of his crimes, but to actually point the way (again, literally) to his redemption. All he has to do to lose the ghostly posse which dogs him is kill the people who ordered, or stood by and allowed, their twelve deaths.
Once the reader accepts this premise, and the fact that the 'hero' is a cold-blooded murderer, Stuart Neville's debut thriller grabs hold and doesn't let go as Fegan embarks on his personal unholy crusade. Like most crusades with a backdrop of religious intolerance, it is a very bloody affair and the violence rapidly escalates - as it must, for Fegan's only palliative for his failing sanity is that murder must exorcise the sin of murder, as he simply can no longer conceive of any alternative.
THE TWELVE (which will be called THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST in the USA) takes a jaded, often cynical, view of life in Northern Ireland now that 'peace' has supposedly broken out. Absolutely everyone is corrupt - the politicians, the police, the priests, the security services, property developers and, of course, the traditional rural Irish gangster who runs a diesel 'laundering' racket with a pit-bull fighting ring on the side. Even the pariah single mother (a Catholic formerly married to a Protestant) whom Fegan decides to protect, like a tarnished medieval knight taking on a penance, is perhaps not as innocent as she seems.
In the context of such corruption, twisted tribal loyalties and a long legacy of distrust, Fegan the haunted killer emerges as virtually the only honest, almost pure, character. He is a soul-less murderer, but at least he knows that's what he is and does not dare to aspire to anything more. His life of violence has damned him and the only way he can ease his suffering is to dish out more violence against those who used him as a blunt instrument for their own selfish ends.
And the violence comes thick and fast as Neville puts his characters through hell, barely giving them or the reader time to draw breath, the pace of the writing being merely one very impressive aspect of this frighteningly assured first novel.
There is also a poignant scene (one of the few relatively peaceful ones) where Fegan and the women and her daughter he has more or less adopted are on the run and check in to a lonely country inn in the middle of the night. It is reminiscent of the scene in the Hitchcock film of The 39 Steps, but where, in Scotland, the fleeing couple are treated with kindness, in Northern Ireland they are almost instantaneously betrayed to their enemies.
THE TWELVE is a tough, uncompromising thriller, technically very well paced and solidly constructed in the best, tragic, noir fiction tradition, though possibly not one for the faint-hearted.
Read another review of THE TWELVE.
Mike Ripley, England
Mike Ripley has reviewed over 950 crime novels in a 20-year stint as a critic for, among others, the Daily Telegraph, Birmingham Post, Publishing News, The Good Book Guide and Deadly Pleasures (US). He currently runs a creative crime-writing course for Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education and writes the gossip column Getting Away With Murder on www.shotsmag.co.uk . His own crime novels are ludicrously over-praised on his official fan site www.thatangellook.co.uk, but that's what it's there for.