Book Review: Those We Left Behind
by Stuart Neville
Soho Crime, 2015
Irish crime-writer Stuart Neville’s sixth novel, Those We Left Behind, is set in Belfast and revolves around a horrific crime: years ago, two boys, fourteen-year-old Thomas and twelve-year-old Ciaran Devine, are found guilty of savagely beating to death their foster father, David Rolston. Trying to shield his brother, Ciaran takes full responsibility for the crime, and although both boys are sent to prison, Ciaran’s confession never really sits well with the Serena Flanagan, the policewoman who elicited it.
As the novel opens, the Devine brothers have served their sentences are being released, to predictable amounts of media uproar and to the seething contempt of Daniel Rolston, the son of the boys’ victim (“All he’d ever wanted was for the brothers to tell the truth”), who vows private revenge – all of which brings the case back to prominence and back into the life of Serena Flanagan, now a Detective Chief Inspector and recent breast cancer survivor.
And if all this setup strikes you as more than a little thick in good old-fashioned bathos, you won’t be mistaken: it’s Neville’s main stock-in-trade. He draws characters well and briskly; he paints a dramatically effective (if not quite real-life – call it TV-verite) version of the workings of an urban police force, and even in his impressive debut novel (titled in America The Ghosts of Belfast), he already had a firm grasp of plotting and pacing – such things move like clockwork in Those We Left Behind. But his real strength consists of what me dear departed Ma used to call “laying it on with a trowel.” Every one of his characters (very much including Belfast itself) is a poor trudging miserable sod, the sky is always bleak gray, and the crisp-packets always get stuck in the vending machine. In this hangdog regret-clogged world, it’s little wonder that Ciaran Devine, all of nineteen, is already regretting his whole life and yearning to do it over:
When Ciaran was very small, Thomas told him God wasn’t real. Just a made-up story to make people behave themselves. But Ciaran wishes God was real so that he could say a prayer, ask God to let him go back to the start, to be baby once more, with all these nineteen years to try again.
And it’s not just the young killer – the young killer’s victim, we learn in a gripping flashback, was brimming to his earlobes with self-pity even on the very night he was murdered:
As a sliver of sobriety crept in, it brought with it a clarity Daniel did not welcome. The reality of it, how low he had fallen in less than a week. As he coughed and spat, he thought of Niamh and what she would think if she saw him now, puking his guts out in an alley, covered in his own vomit and piss. Through the heaving of his stomach, he began to cry, helpless child tears, for that’s what he was: a child lost in a world of adults. He had only been playing at a grown-up for all these years. He knew he remained the child he had been when his mother and he sat in the big McDonald’s in town, a special treat for him because he’d been doing well at school despite all the distraction at home, and she had brought him there and told him he could order anything he wanted.
This is a fine (one doesn’t want to say pungent) example of the kind of melodrama that the Boston book critics of a bygone era used to refer to as a cod opera. There are no heroes, because nobody thinks or acts heroically about anything, and there are no villains, since Neville goes out of his way to make sure we realize the Devine brothers are merely hollow, garden-variety sociopaths: they feel no compunction about killing and no empathy for their victims not because they’re wicked but because they’re wired wrong. Poor vengeance-crazed Daniel Rolston is the closest the whole book comes to an interesting character, and even so he’s not exactly somebody you’d want to share a taxi with. This is Irish noir in its fullest modern incarnation, full of sound and fury and signifying one more damn Guinness before I head home to cold leftovers. Thrillseekers are advised accordingly.