Mike's Reviews > The Ghosts of Belfast

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
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's review
Jan 28, 12

bookshelves: 20th-century, crime, noir, ireland, irish-republican-army, belfast, ulster, unionists, dissidents, england, double-agents, murder, guilt, psychological-suspense, supernatural, series, series-debut
Recommended to Mike by: A Barnes & Noble Nook Find of the Day
Recommended for: Especially for readers of crime, noir, Irish fiction,
Read from January 25 to 28, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Stewart Neville's The Ghosts of Belfast: One Paddy's Lamentation

"I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

From Easter, 1916, William Butler Yeats

The words of Yeats capture the tone of The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville. In Belfast you can never be certain of the loyalty of the people to whom you speak. The result is not beautiful, but it is terrible in every way imaginable.

The troubles in Ireland have changed. There is an uneasy political truce. The tough faces of the IRA look smoother in tailored suits, seated in the House of Representatives. The new voices of the Republicans are Michael McKenna and Paul McGinty. But in their youth, they worked their way up the ranks of the IRA, schooled in the brutality of what it takes to get the Brits out of Ulster by Bull O'Kane, who still pulls the hidden strings of violence from his farm in County Armagh. He is the Bull because of his love of fighting Pits in his tumble down barn where the stakes of the wagers are always high, but not as high as the stakes on the streets of Belfast.

Gerry Fegan was also schooled by O'Kane. He grew up with McKenna and McGinty. He bought all the ideology of bloody resistance to drive England out of Northern Ireland and made his bones while still a young man. When the orders came down to take out a tout, Fegan did his duty. He did his time in the Maze, portrayed by his smoother contemporaries as a political prisoner. But he's not a mere prisoner on a hunger fast, he's a killer and he knows it, haunted by a string of twelve ghosts of those he killed through the years.

Released from the Maze as a part of the political machinations leading to the truce in the troubles, Fegan retains the stature of his reputation as a freedom fighter, looked up to and respected by all those who still look for a united Ireland. But Fegan is no longer the man he was. Gerry has gone to drink to escape the voices in his head. The ghosts are constantly with him. There's the twelve year old boy, a tout, he killed by putting a bullet through his head. The boy's buried in a bog. There are the Brit soldiers. The Royal Ulster Contabulary officers. Worst of all are the butcher, a young mother, and her babe in arms, all killed in the blast of a bomb Gerry left in the shop because the Prod Unionists were meeting upstairs.

The ghosts want vengeance. Gerry will only sleep when he yields to their cry for the blood of those that ordered their murders. When Gerry is approached in a Belfast cemetery by the mother of the twelve year old he caves in to her pleas to know where her son is buried and tells her. She tells him he will pay for what he's done, that everyone pays in the end.

There are eyes and ears loyal to the IRA everywhere. Gerry's meeting with the woman is seen and heard. Word is passed up the line that something must be done about Gerry Fegan. But none of those in the upper echelons of the underground resistance realize that Gerry still retains all the skills he learned as a young man. Fegan has no equal when it comes to the art of killing.

While Gerry sets out to appease the ghosts that haunt him, the IRA has to put the correct political spin on why the bodies of their brothers in the cause begin to mount. The murders are not being committed by one of their own, but by the usual suspects, the Brits, or the victim was someone who deserved to die because they had dipped their fingers into unacceptable business--trafficking in girls with Lithuanian smugglers of young flesh.

With each death, the ghosts of their victims leave Gerry, the twelve gradually dwindling as Gerry seeks his redemption by setting things right. Enter Marie McKenna with her child by an Ulster policeman. She is the niece of Michael McKenna, now seen as an outsider because of her affair with a Protestant Unionist. Gerry meets her at the wake for McKenna and watches her lips silently mouth, "You got what you deserved."

A curious relationship begins to grow between Gerry and Marie. The bond is cemented by his gentle love for her daughter Ellen. When the resistance decides that Marie's time has come to be driven from Ireland, along with her apparent Unionist sympathies, she will not go and the stakes grow higher. If she won't take exile, more extreme measures will be taken. Gerry won't allow any more deaths to occur for a meaningless cause. He becomes their protector.

Don't think this is a simple anti-Republican diatribe. There are no saints in The Ghosts of Belfast. The Brits still have their finger in the pie with Davy Campbell, a former member of the Scot's Black Watch Regiment, inserted as an agent to keep the British supplied with information of what goes on in the ranks of the underground Dissidents. Campbell has blood on his hands, too. He's dispatched to the North to sort out the deaths of the resistance for whom the Brits are being blamed.

Campbell will be the man to take out Marie and her daughter Ellen if necessary, and to kill Gerry, whom Bull O'Kane realizes is the real killer of his minions. If he can take out Campbell in the process--yes, he's figured out Campbell is a plant, all the better.

Neville drives relentlessly to a final confrontation at O'Kane's isolated farm. The tension never slackens. The question of who lives and who dies will not be answered until a storm of bloody violence breaks over O'Kane's farm, a stronghold for the most violent members of the Republican resistance.

Neville is good. It's as simple as that. A master of twists and turns, Neville weaves a subtle web of deception from the wet streets of Belfast to the green fields of the Irish countryside. The conclusion revealing the actions of Gerry's last ghost will leave the reader stunned, wondering if there is ever the possibility of forgiveness or redemption for the commission of evil.

Almost perfect, this is a solid 4.5 star read. Highly recommended. This is the first of three Celtic Noir novels by Neville. I'll be reading them.
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