I’d heard of Stuart Neville, of course. THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST had been loitering near the top of my to-be-read pile for better than a year. But there are so many damn books, so much to do, I just hadn’t gotten to it yet.
So I get to Bouchercon in Cleveland and a mess of people are heading over to his party for RATLINES. Hey, free booze, maybe a free book, why not? Turns out the party was upstairs in maybe the hardest bar to find in all of Ohio, which worked out great for me, because we beat the crowd and there were still a few ARCs left when I got there, so I managed to snag one.
Damn, am I glad I did.
Maybe the name Otto Skorzeny means something to you, maybe not. But I’m a bit of a military history buff, so I recognized the Waffen-SS Obersturmbannführer’s name right off. Hitler’s pet commando, the guy that snatched Mussolini away from the allies. I’d never given much thought to what happened to him after the war, though. Certainly never imagined he’d spent a good chunk of his retirement living on a nice estate outside Dublin. (I’ve done a little more reading on Skorzeny since and found that, while he managed to get “de-Nazified” by the German government, he was also a major player in ODESSA, a network of former SS officers that helped Nazis facing war crimes trials or other issues escape prosecution and establish new lives. Charming guy.)
In case my name didn’t tip you off, my ancestors are Irish. My grandfather emigrated from County Kerry back in 1916, a teenager, alone, packed off to an unfamiliar country with nothing more than the name of some people in Chicago. When he got here, he found out the quickest way to get his citizenship was to join the army, so he did, headed off to France to join Black Jack Pershing and the boys to fight the Kaiser. Fortunately for gramps, the fighting was pretty much over by the time he got there. Means he didn’t end up dead in a trench, which is good for me, too, I guess. Also means he didn’t have to spend his time trying to decide between shooting at the Germans or the British. Came back to the US and joined the Chicago PD just in time to get a little experience in before Prohibition made guys like Al Capone and Bugs Moran household names. Little easier to know who to shoot at then.
The thing is, a lot of Irish Americans have a romanticized view of the Auld Sod. Saint Paddy’s Day in Chicago, they dye the freakin’ river green, everybody’s pawing through their ancestry trying to come up with some Irish credentials. That’s before they hit the bars and end up puking in the gutters during the parade, or one of them. There’s the official city shindig, but also the South Side Irish parade for those who find the municipal authorities insistence on at least a modicum of sobriety and civilized behavior too constraining for celebrations of the holy occasion.
I grew up with some of that, hearing the old Irish Rover’s tunes about “how the boys from County Cork tore up the Black and Tans.” I remember the Up The Provos sign that used to hang on the wall at The Emerald Isle. Imagine my surprise at learning that the IRA had turned into a mess of murderous terrorist thugs – and that a fair bit of their operating capital came out the pockets of drunks in bars in Irish neighborhoods in Boston, New York, Chicago. Imagine my shock at learning that “the Troubles” weren’t a cut and dried fight against English oppression, not anymore, and that the Republic of Ireland had spent WWII being cozy with Hitler out of reflexive anti-British sentiment and a long history of anti-Semitism. It’s 2013 now, yet a woman suffering a miscarriage just died in a Galway hospital because they wouldn’t perform an abortion, not even to save her life. You couldn’t get a divorce in Ireland until 1996. If you think you need to travel to burqa country to find a theocracy, think again. Something we here in the good ol’ US of A might want to keep in mind as we tip-toe around idiots who think the world is only ten thousand years old and who want to teach creationism as science and use our tax dollars to do it.
Back to RATLINES. It’s 1963. President Kennedy is coming to visit. The last thing the Republic needs muddying up that love fest is a series of murders involving the host of former Nazis the country has clasped to its bosom. So, when a few of them end up dead and a note addressed to Otto Skorzeny reading “We are coming for you” is found on one of the corpses, the powers that be turn to Lieutenant Albert Ryan in the Directorate of Intelligence. His charge? Find the killers, protect the Nazis, and keep the whole thing out of the papers.
Protect the Nazis. The same enemy that Ryan had risked – and almost lost – his life fighting during the war. Because, while he might be Catholic, he isn’t your usual Irishman. He’d volunteered for the British army and served with distinction in the battle against Hitler. Which had caused more than a little trouble for him when he returned home. As a Catholic, he’s distrusted by Protestants. As a soldier, he’s distrusted by Catholics. And he’s learned that it’s dangerous to trust anyone too much.
RATLINES offers everything you want from a crime novel. A tight, believable plot that keeps you turning the pages. Taut writing with top notes of lyricism. A host of compelling characters, each well and efficiently drawn. Had the story been invented from whole cloth, it would have been a compelling read. But its foundation in fact and its insights into this troubling and under-reported period in Irish history elevate it to masterpiece status.
OK, so you weren’t in Cleveland, or maybe you were, but you couldn’t find the bar before the ARCs were gone. Your wait is over. RATLINES is on the shelves now. Get a copy. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. And Stuart Neville has joined the list of authors who will never languish in my to-be-read pile. I’m promoting him to the must-read list.