Harvill Secker £12.99
IoS book review: Ratlines, By Stuart Neville
Washing Ireland's dirty laundry is not for the faint-hearted
Sunday 06 January 2013
Anyone who likes a bit of moral complexity in their crime fiction is in for a treat with this accomplished, assured and expertly plotted historical novel. Set in the Republic of Ireland in 1963, Ratlines is an immersive, atmospheric book; a complex conundrum of a story with tendrils that lead back to the Second World War.
The title refers to the escape routes across Europe that hundreds of Nazis used in order to flee after the war, many of them to set up new lives in Ireland. The historical context is worth going into here, as it is the bedrock of the novel, and subtly infiltrates every character's motivation.
Ireland was, of course, neutral during the Second World War, but many republicans had plenty of sympathy for Germany, my enemy's enemy being my ally, and all that. Thousands of others, however, enlisted to fight in the British Army, and this difference continued to run through Irish life for decades after the war.
Ratlines opens with a former Nazi being killed in Ireland. A message is pinned to the body threatening another German, the real-life figure of Otto Skorzeny, a colonel in the Third Reich who has become a powerful and rich businessman, thanks to a mixture of stolen gold and the apparent patronage of one Charles Haughey. Haughey appears throughout Ratlines as an arrogant and preening Minister for Justice, and he enlists our anti-hero Albert Ryan to investigate the threat to Skorzeny, a threat that exponentially increases as more dead Nazis and collaborators turn up.
Ryan is an investigator for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence – the equivalent of MI5, roughly – but he also served in the British Army, both in the Second World War and afterwards in Korea. And yet he finds himself entrusted with the task of protecting a known Nazi.
This dilemma is at the heart of Ratlines, and Neville exploits it brilliantly. As the plot ramps up several levels (and it really does), we meet a young woman, Celia, tasked with getting close to Ryan and reporting back to Skorzeny; former SAS soldiers in search of millions in Nazi gold; a team of Breton nationalists full of guilt at their wartime collaboration with Germany; and a deeply compromised member of the Israeli secret service Mossad.
This might all sound over the top when spelled out here, but Neville does a fine job of grounding his action in the everyday. Not for him the cliché of the glamorous international spy. Instead he depicts the brutality and banality of that life with refreshing grittiness. Indeed, as if to prove that point, there's a running joke in Ratlines about the newly released first James Bond film, Dr No, which Ryan takes Celia to see, declaring it "a bit silly". No such silliness can be seen in Ryan's method of working.
It should probably be pointed out that Ratlines is not for the faint-hearted. There are two lengthy torture scenes, a number of severe beatings and a fair old body count, but it's to Neville's credit that none of this seems gratuitous. The author's clean, direct prose, well-utilised research, intricate plotting and deep characterisation all add up to a seriously impressive piece of crime fiction, that lingers long in the memory.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 3 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes a bit too far at the Q Awards
- 4 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
- 5 Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Taylor Swift, 1989 - album review: Pop star shows 'promising signs of maturity'
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational but still sensitive
Breaking Bad season 6 hoax: Vince Gilligan has not confirmed a new series
Miranda Hart confirms eponymous sitcom has come to an end as she bows out on a 'high'
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show how skewed people’s priorities are