RATLINES, the latest novel by highly acclaimed author Stuart Neville, is a bit of a departure from his previous work. While his prior trio of books --- THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, COLLUSION and STOLEN SOULS --- were dark, contemporary thrillers, his newest effort, set in the summer of 1963, leans more toward a historical espionage thriller in subject matter, though the grimness of mood certainly comes close to matching its predecessors.
"Neville is a master plotter, and the murky historical trail that forms the book’s subject matter provides him with some very pliable material with which to work."
The book’s focal point is Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Irish Directorate of Intelligence. Ryan is an interesting enigma; though a resident of Northern Ireland, he lied about his age and enlisted in the British Army during World War II, serving with distinction in the European Theatre. His actions, however, were not held in high regard back home, to the extent that his father’s business has been blacklisted by the local union and his family ostracized as Protestant sympathizers. But Ryan still considers himself a loyal Irishman, which is why he is conflicted, and somewhat repulsed, by his latest assignment.
Ryan joined a national law enforcement agency because he liked what he thought would be the clear delineation of right versus wrong that upholding the law would bring. However, a major event in Irish history is the impetus that gives him pause. John F. Kennedy, the U.S. President of Irish-American descent, is about to visit Ireland. The night before, two German nationals have been murdered and a third threatened. The victims are former Nazi commandos who have been given comfort and asylum by the Irish government. Ryan is tasked with investigating the murders and preventing the third potential victim --- Otto Skorzeny, a notorious member of the SS --- from meeting a similar fate.
The powers-that-be want things cleaned up quickly and quietly, fearing that if even a whiff of the scandal was to see the light of day, the trip would be cancelled, much to the embarrassment of all concerned. There is more than a bit of irony here as Skorzeny is the physical manifestation of everything that Ryan fought against in World War II. Worse, Skorzeny has somehow made the transformation from a monstrous SS leader to gentleman Irish farmer. Ryan is torn between doing his duty and staying true to his conscience.
Meanwhile, Ryan is also caught between at least two other mysterious groups: one is bent upon murdering Skorzeny, while the other wants him alive but pliable, as a means to achieving different ends. Of course, Ryan’s handler in the Irish government has his own agenda, which is as self-serving as the former Nazi’s, though not necessarily in line with it. Matters are further complicated when a potential love interest insinuates herself into Ryan’s life on orders from Skorzeny, but soon finds her loyalties --- among other things --- divided. Ryan is subjected to twists and turns as he learns that those with whom he has allied himself may be both more and less than he believed.
Neville is a master plotter, and the murky historical trail that forms the book’s subject matter provides him with some very pliable material with which to work. There are some interesting sidelights as well: a certain popular movie of the time pops up in the narrative, with not a little irony, and the nadir of the abyss of Skorzeny’s character, while hinted at throughout, is not fully revealed until the final pages. However, the key element of RATLINES is Neville’s dark style, which provides an unflinching look into the heart of human darkness.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 4, 2013