FORMER NAZIS and Nazi collaborators resident in Ireland are being taken out one by one by an enigmatic hit squad, but this is a only a warning to the man they are really after - SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny.
Skorzeny, the man who helped ‘liberate’ Mussolini, is living in Ireland, enjoying the life of a well to do country squire and ‘man about town’ in Dublin and Kildare. However he is concerned for his security.
The Minister for Justice, Charles J Haughey, calls on the Irish secret service’s best man, Albert Ryan, to track down the killers. Ryan, deeply uncomfortable with having to protect someone like Skorzeny, finds this is only the tip of a particularly dark and nasty iceberg.
This is Ratlines, the brilliant new novel from the acclaimed County Armagh crime-writer Stuart Neville, who is coming to Galway later this month as part of the Cúirt International Festival of literature.
Reining in Haughey
Set in Ireland in 1963, in the run up to US president John F Kennedy’s State visit, Ratlines is Neville’s fourth novel, following the Los Angeles Times Book Prize winning The Twelve, and the critically praised Collusion and Stolen Souls. Ratlines is a departure for Neville in that it takes his writing into the realms of the spy novel and historical fiction.
“Crime fiction tends to be compartmentalised into noir, historical fiction, police procedural - within the box of crime fiction, there are further boxes,” Neville tells me during our Monday morning conversation, “so it was very much a departure and in terms of research, a very different experience. Setting a novel in the present day you tend to only need to examine the mechanics of how things work, like a particular type of gun, or what the effects of a certain kind of wound are, it’s nuts and bolts research.
“For Ratlines it was more about talking to people, and there were a couple of friends who were very familiar with Dublin in that era and who knew Charles J Haughey. It was good to be able to talk to them and get the feel for the era, as that was most important - the feel of Dublin then. For example, in an earlier draft of the novel, the character of Celia wore an off the shoulder dress, but one of my friends pulled me up on it and said a young woman in Ireland in 1963 would not have worn an off the shoulder dress, it would have caused a scandal.”
Ratlines abounds with strong, memorable, characters - the feisty and liberated Celia; the corrupt Mossad agent Weiss; the tragic, idealistic, Catherine Beauchamp; and the sadistic, yet inwardly vulnerable Celestin Laine - but Irish readers will find Neville’s portrayal of Charles Haughey as unforgettable as it is entertaining.
“I got the idea for the novel from watching a programme by Cathal O’Shannon called Ireland’s Nazis,” says Neville. “Charles Haughey was minister for justice at the time and would have been responsible for asylum seekers so he would have been at least aquatinted with Otto Skorzeny. He did met him in 1957 at a country club function. When that came up I went ‘Ah!’
“I wondered if I should include him in the novel, but I couldn’t keep him out. I considered if I should fictionalise him but it would have been too obvious who the character was based on. There’s no point in being coy.”
Readers will recognise and enjoy Neville’s knowing references to Haughey’s “hawk like glare” - that famous stare which often left opponents cowering before him, and the frequent use of the term “Big fella” - most famously made to Ben Dunne decades later in his career.
“Haughey is a character you could really get your teeth into,” says Neville. “You couldn’t make him up. He was such a larger than life man and there were so many things to pick from. The biggest challenge is to keep him believable. He was so extraordinary, he could be over the top, so the thing is I often had to rein him in!”
Albert Ryan, Ratlines’ main character, however is, fittingly, the book’s most compelling figure. Driven by a strong sense of duty and a ruthless streak that is not afraid to get very dirty, he also possesses a sense of morality and sensitivity, questioning the ethics of finding himself working both with and against former Nazis, ex-British army mercenaries, Irish Government ministers, and Mossad agents.
That Ryan, a Presbyterian from County Monaghan, also served in the British army, creates further layers to the character - a means of exploring the way the State reacted to Irishmen who fought in WWII and a way to show that Irish identity is not a monolith, but has many differing forms.
The novel makes clear that Ryan enlisted to fight because he was a young man, bored with small town life and looking for adventure - as most of the Irish who fought in WWII were - yet 18 years after the war, he is continually accused of being pro-British and unionist, which he never comes across as.
“If you go in making those points you’ll come across as lecturing,” says Neville. “So it wasn’t done consciously, but it was something that developed. It comes from my tendency to create characters who feel out of place with their society, at odds with the world around him.
“Back to that Cathal O’Shannon documentary, he said how he joined the RAF and it wasn’t well received. When Irishmen were killed in action, the obituaries could not say what they were doing they just said ‘died suddenly abroad’. That became the euphemism for being killed in battle in WWII, it was just reduced to a bland little lie.”
Neville continues: “The issue of a conflicted idea of nationality and identity is not hard to come by if you’re from Northern Ireland. There is this push and pull of being Irish and yet having this British background, especially for someone like me who comes from a Unionist background. It’s a double sided coin. That’s not hard to take into a character that does not quite belong to their surroundings.”
One particular surrounding Galway readers will enjoy is Ratlines opening scene - set in Salthill.
“I was only in Galway once before,” says Neville. “I went to the Galway Film Fleadh in the mid-1990s and I stayed in a guest house in Salthill, and it stuck in my mind - a little seaside place.”
Neville hopes to write more novels featuring Albert Ryan and Charles Haughey, but says they will be some time away owing to the research needed. “I may look at episodes in Haughey’s colourful career and how Albert Ryan could be in the background,” he says.
At the moment however he is working on a Belfast novel. “There were three or four false starts,” he says, “but thankfully I’ve got a substantial chunk of the new novel written.”
Stuart Neville will take part in the Harvill Secker Crime Panel on Saturday April 27 at 6.30pm in the Town Hall Theatre with Sweden’s Arne Dahl, Finland’s Antti Tuomainen, and chair for the event, Arlene Hunt. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie