Monday, November 4, 2013

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Soho Crime gave away copies of Stuart Neville’s Ratlines during Bouchercon 2012. I apparently had something more important to do—the hotel bar may have been involved—and I missed out. Consider this another argument against drinking; Ratlines is a great book.

In 1963 the United States’ first Irish and first Catholic president—John Kennedy—visited Ireland, the first visit of an American president in Irish history. Many of Kennedy’s advisors wanted to cancel so Kennedy could attend to more pressing Cold War issues; any excuse would do. The Irish were determined not to give them one.

Problem was, Ireland had a dirty little sort of kind of secret: government acceptance of former Nazis, including SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny, hero of the Mussolini rescue mission. Officially living in Ireland as a gentleman farmer, Skorzeny hold the purse strings to get as yet undiscovered Nazis to havens such as Ireland and South America. The network of escape routes are the ratlines of the book’s title.

Skorzeny himself comes under attack from an unknown individual or group. people known to him are killed; messages for him are left. Publicity of a string of murders is bad enough; too much exposure of Ireland’s coziness with Nazis would make Kennedy’s trip politically unfeasible. The Irish government wants this to go away at virtually any cost, and assigns Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Directorate of Intelligence—the Irish G2—to take care of it.

That’s as much of it as I’ll give away. Neville’s understated, yet eloquent writing is reminiscent of John leCarré; his inclusion of historical figures as characters—notably Skorzeny and Irish Justice Minister Charles Haughey—is as effective as James Ellroy, though less bombastic; and the increasing complexities of the plot, including double- and triple-crosses (maybe even a quadruple) invokes fond memories of the best work of Alistair MacLean. Put it all together and Neville has created as close to the perfect thriller as you’re likely to find, with all the necessary elements in perfect proportion, never allowing the reader to step back and wonder what’s going on by going anywhere near a jumpable shark. Everyone who considers himself a thriller writer should read Ratlines and pay heed.

I’ll not soon deny Soho an opportunity to give me a Stuart Neville Book again.

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