You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction.
As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”
The “detective,” Davy Campbell, a Scottish paramilitary officer who has lived underground with the IRA for many years, is a killer himself. The contest of wits and physical prowess between these two pawns in the grip of history unfolds against a background of political corruption and betrayal in Northern Ireland. The action takes place following the Good Friday Agreement that laid to rest — presumably for all time — decades of intercommunal violence between Protestants and Catholics.
The Ghosts of Belfast (Belfast #1) by Stuart Neville (2009) 337 pages ★★★★★
The Ghosts of Belfast is skillfully written. His characters are all too believable, all the more so for their profound cynicism and greed for power and money — to my mind, a principal reason for the unending violence in Northern Ireland. No one comes off well in Neville’s story, not Fegan and Campbell, and not the men who manipulate them. I suspect that anyone who witnesses sectarian violence first-hand anywhere in the world might feel the same about the central actors on both sides of the wars they observe.
Stuart Neville is a young Northern Irish writer who achieved instant acclaim for The Ghosts of Belfast, the first of his four novels. The book was nominated for numerous awards, winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
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