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It’s a Mystery: “Sooner or later, everybody pays”

By (December 1, 2009) No Comment

The Ghosts of Belfast

By Stuart Neville
Soho Press, Inc., 2009

How is it that a country that produced such literary lions as George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, and Jonathan Swift, to name but a few, has not given us a great detective? Ireland has always been a nation of storytellers: tall stories, simple stories, love stories, revelatory stories of family secrets, stories of violence, domestic or otherwise. Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, Oliver Goldsmith, Liam O’Flaherty, William Trevor, among many, gave us a literary roster that almost no other country can match. But it has no Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, Charlie Chan, Adam Dalgliesh, Harry Bosch, Perry Mason, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot or Miss O’Marple.

It’s true, there is Bartholomew Gill’s Detective Peter McGarr of Dublin’s police force. And Declan Hughes’ “Irish novels of suspense” featuring P.I. Ed Loy, who avows, “Dublin is a hard enough city to be a private citizen in, let alone a private investigator.” But they can’t hold a candle to the impressive international array of fictional hounds/gumshoes/dicks and snoopers. From India, hails Inspector Ganesh Vinayak Ghote. From Italy, Commissario Guido Brunetti. Sweden, Detectives Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander. Australia, “Bony” Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, half British and half Aboriginal. The Navajo’s have tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Dan Fortune is a one-armed Polish New York P.I. There are clerical sleuths, none Irish. There is Father Brown and Rabbi Small, and the wonderful 12th century monk-cum-sleuth, Brother Cadfael. The Dutch have Inspector Piet van der Valk. The Scots have Inspector John Rebus. The Greeks have Nick Stefanos. The Chinese, the seventh century Judge Dee. The Gypsies have Roman Grey. African Americans have Virgil Tibbs, Easy Rawlins, and John Shaft. Ed McBain’s 27th precinct features a superbly multicultural ensemble, while remaining uniquely American. Which could almost describe Dennis Lehane’s blue collar Boston, and his fierce and frightening thrillers—they are uniquely Irish-American.

Sidekicks are a whole other feature of some of the best detective novels. Of course, there is Holmes’ Watson. Inspector Endeavor Morse—his first name’s a story unto itself—has Sergeant Lewis. Nero Wolfe has Archie Goodwin. Inspector Thomas Lynley has Barbara Havers. The sleuthing psychologist Alex Delaware has his Detective Milo Sturgis, who happens to be gay. (Most important aside: David Brandstetter, insurance investigator and P.I., was also, not so incidentally, the first gay protagonist in the genre to reach a mainstream audience.) South Africa’s Lieutenant Tromp Kramer has his Zulu sidekick, Sergeant Mickey Zondi, Lord Peter Wimsey his impeccable manservant, Mervyn Bunter. But the absolute best in sidekicks and manservants is Lugg Magersfontein. From his name, to his colorful description, he’s a man of many talents, a former cat burglar who now moves like a circus elephant. He’s the unorthodox gentleman’s gentleman for that upper class sleuth Albert Campion.

The twentieth century spawned a special breed of private eyes who think outside the box. They are more private avenger than private eye and their creators to a man characterize them as modern knights. They can all trace their origins to Sam Spade, whose most notable quality is his absolute adherence to a private code of ethics. Their code of honor: morality. Lew Archer: “He’s not the usual peeper…he operates with a quiet moral center.” Philip Marlowe: “A modern knight in search of a hidden truth.” Travis McGee: “…a tattered knight, dirty fighter, tender, healing lover.” He calls himself a “…salvage expert. It’s not the promise of a reward but a quixotic sense of knight-errantry.” Jack Reacher: Ex-MP, “…a wonderfully epic hero: tough, taciturn, yet vulnerable.” Spenser: spelled appropriately because “He’s a Boston private eye with the build of a prizefighter and the soul of a poet.”

It has been said that there are no private eyes in Ireland of the world class variety, because the Irish wouldn’t wear it. Because, ‘tis alleged, it brushes perilously close to the hated “informer.” You can get away with most anything except “telling.” A mantra that might well be the motto for the Irish knights-errant of the twenty first century. Doing their ancestors proud, the Irish are beginning to emerge with a splendid collection of rogues, anti-heroes, “honest” con men, and veterans of the Troubles.

With this debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville joins a select group of Irish writers—Ken Bruen and Adrian McKinty are out in front—who have reinvigorated the noir tradition with a Celtic edge. Their anti-heroes operate in a dark world of anger, hate, and poverty. Their “honest” con men are a product of an environment lacking in any basis for morality other than individualism. They act with inadvertent heroism and mordant grace. Their primal stories are retold with a fine, careless Irish swagger.

Neville’s protagonist, Gerry Fegan, has a “knack” for killing people that made him a legend among Catholic paramilitaries in Belfast during the Troubles. Moreover, his victims don‘t all end up dead. When it comes to the “Belfast-pack,” shooting a man in the ankles, knees, and elbows, Fegan excels. But at age 45, free after 12 years in prison and returned to the city’s still-edgy peace and prosperity, he’s haunted by the apparitions of his victims, now his constant followers. Twelve, if he counts the baby in its mother’s arms, that he knows to be innocent, are the ghosts that are with him day and night:

Stuart Neville

Maybe if he had one more drink they’d leave him alone. Gerry Fegan told himself that lie before every swallow…. Look up and they’ll be gone, he thought. No, they were still there staring…. He was good and drunk now. When his stomach couldn’t hold any more he would let Tom the barman show him to the door, and the twelve would follow Fegan through the streets of Belfast, into his house, up his stairs, and into his bedroom. If he was lucky and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear. That was the only time they made a sound, when he was alone and on the edge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it.

Actually, the beginning of the worst of it was finally having been sent to jail for the murder of three innocents. Now, he’s out and the world has changed. The boyos like himself who did battle for a cause are persona non grata. To Fegan, slowly going mad, the only way to lose these followers, is to systematically assassinate the men who gave him his orders. Though those in the militant IRA underworld have written him off as a babbling drunk and a liability to the movement, they take note when their members start turning up dead. Still, his attempts to exorcise his demons this way, as he learns at his peril, could shatter Northern Ireland’s government and cause internecine war in the IRA. Reinforced, when a paramilitary turned corrupt parliamentarian, Paul McGinty, invites him for a ride in his limo and tells him something he knows in his bones:

McGinty’s local Town Car floated along the lower Falls Road like a magic carpet. McGinty dressed in a designer suit, was about as far from the young revolutionary of Fegan’s memory as a man could be…. Fegan felt as if he was in a steel cocoon. “You wanted to see me,” he said.

…”How’s the Community Development job going?”

“I cash the checks.”

“You’re entitled to it Gerry. You gave us twelve years. We won’t forget it. That job will keep paying as long as you want it, no questions asked.” …Fegan’s thigh tensed and he ground his shoe against the Lincoln’s carpeting as McGinty squeezed his knee.

…”This is a different world, Gerry. The bombs won’t work any more….The people won’t tolerate violence like they used to… Then 9/ll came along. The Americans don’t look at armed struggle the same way. Used to be we could sell them the romance of it, call ourselves freedom fighters, and they loved it. The money just rolled in, all those Irish-Americans digging in their pockets for the old country. They don’t buy it any more. We’ve got peace now, whether we like it or not.”

McGinty is on a roll. He thinks Gerry is with him now all the way. He gets longwinded about memory and other people’s sins; he’s positively unctuous:

I remember my sins, thought Fegan. They follow me everywhere. He wondered if McGinty remembered his.

The author of The Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville, lives and works in Armagh, Northern Ireland. As I’ve noted, it’s the home of the Troubles, and is spawning a bevy of fine new voices with an Irish heart, such as this dark and powerful tale of old fealties, betrayals and retribution that plumbs the depths of guilt and despair. Among Gerry’s worst demons is the voice of the mother of a boy he killed. “Sooner or later, everybody pays.”

In the end, a quote from the Irish poet J.M. Synge seems apt for the haunted Fegan:

My sweet enemy was, little by little, giving over her great
wariness…. But Death had his grudge against me and he got up in
the way, like an armed robber, with a pike in his hand.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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