Taoiseach, Nazi, soldier, spy
‘One of the first things I became aware of was the divisiveness of his legacy,” says author Stuart Neville of former taoiseach Charles J Haughey. “When you consider that you can watch videos on YouTube of people dancing on his grave, that gives you a measure of how strongly some people feel about him.”
Charles Haughey appears as a character in Neville’s latest novel, Ratlines, which is set in 1963. As Ireland eagerly awaits the arrival of John F Kennedy, a number of former Nazis and Nazi sympathisers are discovered murdered. Albert Ryan of G2, the Irish military’s equivalent of MI5, is commissioned by Minister for Justice Charles Haughey to investigate the murders, but Haughey is himself on first-name terms with the former Waffen SS commando Otto Skorzeny, a man famous for rescuing Benito Mussolini from captivity in 1943.
“I was vaguely aware of Haughey when he was in power,” says Neville, who was born in Armagh and grew up in the 1980s, “because I’d have had an above-average interest in politics. But I’d have been very aware of him by the time the Moriarty Tribunal came around.”
Neville is fascinated by all facets of Haughey’s career and legacy, “over and above the ‘cute hoor’ caricature that he became known for”, he says. “He’s a gift of a character. You couldn’t make him up. He was a very progressive politician in many ways, and terribly conservative in others. A complicated man. Like anybody in real life, and any good character in a book, he’s not black-and-white, there’s lots of light and shade there.”
Neville’s crime novels have always been heavily freighted with politics. He exploded on to the crime-fiction scene in 2009 with the publication of his debut The Twelve. It revolved around Gerry Fegan, a man hounded by the shades of those he murdered during the Troubles who then sets out to appease the ghosts by killing those who ordered their deaths. Lauded by James Ellroy and John Connolly, and critically acclaimed in the UK and the US, The Twelve (aka The Ghosts of Belfast) won the LA Times Mystery/Thriller Book Prize in 2010.
Neville’s subsequent pair of novels Collusion (2010) and Stolen Souls (2012) complete a loose Belfast Trilogy, but Ratlines is a step away from his usual style of paranormal-tinged thriller into the murky realms of spy fiction.
“I didn’t really look at it as a spy story until it was done,” says Neville ruefully. “In the revisions I probably amplified that a little bit, but it’s not a genre I’m particularly well read in. I’ve read some Le Carré, and I’m actually reading some James Bond books at the minute, but I think I became aware as I finished the first draft that the Albert Ryan character is almost an anti-Bond. He’s an Irish Bond, in the sense that he’s a bit crap” – he laughs defensively – “at being a secret agent. No, it’s a de-glamourised version of that world. Let’s just say he doesn’t have an Aston Martin. And if he did, it wouldn’t have bullet-proof shields.”
The Albert Ryan character is a former soldier with the British army, and first appeared as an ageing killer in a short story Neville published in the Irish crime fiction anthology Down These Green Streets (2011). “That was a little bit of serendipity, actually. I’d written in [the short story] The Craftsman about this couple in their later years, where the husband was previously an assassin. So when I came to write Ratlines, given the period it was set, I realised that Albert Ryan could have been that age at that time, which meant I’d already established him as a character in my own mind. So that was very helpful going into the novel, having a ready-made character. It was almost like picking up a series character without actually having written about him before.”
Although Albert Ryan is the central character in Ratlines, much of the Irish reader’s interest will focus on the personal relationship between Charles Haughey and former Nazi Otto Skorzeny. In the novel, Skorzeny has the run of Haughey’s offices in Leinster House, while Haughey is a valued dinner-party guest of Skorzeny.
How much of that relationship depends on artistic licence, and how much is historically accurate? “There’s a note at the start of the book about a photograph that’s known to exist,” says Neville, “which I still haven’t been able to track down, of Haughey shaking Skorzeny’s hand at a function in 1957, a function held in Skorzeny’s honour. Also, we have to bear in mind what Haughey’s job was in the early 1960s. He was the minister for justice, and the Department of Justice was responsible for aliens, asylum seekers, immigration, and so forth. So he would have to be very aware of people like Skorzeny coming into the country, and living here, even if it was his predecessors who were largely responsible for letting them in.
“Another thing that stuck out for me was from March 1963,” says Neville, “when Noel Browne asked a question in the Dáil about what Skorzeny was doing in Ireland. Was he organising, raising a Fourth Reich, and so on. And Haughey’s answer was: ‘Sure what would I know? He doesn’t live in Ireland.’” Neville shrugs, then laughs. “Even though everyone knew Skorzeny lived here, and he was in the social pages every second week. That for me spoke volumes. And when you consider that Skorzeny was famous for hosting politicians, for throwing dinner parties at his home, I think that the laws of probability would suggest that Haughey and Skorzeny were at least acquainted.”
Neville has a habit of pronouncing Haughey as “hockey”. Given that he hails from the Protestant tradition in Northern Ireland, is he expecting a backlash from people in the Republic incensed at his sullying of Charlie Haughey’s reputation?
“I honestly don’t know,” he says, after a moment’s consideration. “I’ve already seen one or two Amazon reviews, from Irish reviewers, trying to warn people off the book because this is just bashing Ireland, saying that I’m just making all this stuff up. Ignoring the historical basis for the book, obviously.”
Are southerners entitled to ask why, if Stuart Neville wants to dabble in historical crime fiction, he doesn’t concern himself with Northern Ireland and the Troubles? “Well, I think Adrian McKinty has pretty much sown up the 1980s in terms of the Troubles. And you know, I feel I’ve already written about the Troubles enough at this stage. Further books in the Ratlines series may well overlap with the Troubles, but that’d be incidental to the storylines rather than the actual backdrop.
“It’s hard to know what I’ll write about in the future, of course, but right now I feel like I’ve covered all that ground already, and I think other writers have covered it very well too. I was most interested in the post-Troubles period, the aftermath, but I’ve been to that well enough times already.”
Ratlines is a riveting read, and opens a window on to a fascinating period of Irish history. Can we now look forward to reading about Charles Haughey’s part in the Arms Crisis? “To be honest, I’m not so organised that I’d actually plan ahead that much,” Neville laughs.
“At this stage I really should be writing another Belfast novel, but I’m writing something else entirely. That probably frustrates my publisher, that I keep jumping around from one kind of story to another, but I’ve never been a big reader of crime series. The only series I’ve read to any great extent is John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series.
“I’m more a fan of James Ellroy’s approach of a persistent world with different characters moving through it. I just wouldn’t find it very satisfying to stay on the same route all the way through – it feels right to me to move around a bit. Commercially that’s a difficult proposition, but what can you do?”
Stuart Neville’s Ratlines is published by Harvill Secker
The Troubles they've seen
Following in the footsteps of Eoin McNamee and Colin Bateman, a new generation of Northern Ireland’s crime writers is engaging with the Troubles as a backdrop for their fiction.
* Adrian McKinty has just published a new novel I Hear the Sirens in the Street , which is his sequel to The Cold Cold Ground (2012), which featured a Catholic RUC detective and opens in 1981 in the wake of the death of Bobby Sands by hunger strike.
* Brian McGilloway’s current novel, The Nameless Dead (2012), opens with an investigation by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains.
This, in turn, leads to the investigation of a murder during the Troubles – even if Peace Process legislation means the murder can’t officially be investigated.
* Claire McGowan’s sophomore novel, The Lost (2013), features forensic psychologist Paula Maguire as she investigates a number of contemporary disappearances in Newry, which may be linked to similar disappearances in 1985.
* Anthony Quinn’s debut, Disappeared (2012), features another Catholic detective, Celsius Daly, who finds himself dragged into the murky world of Troubles-era spies and spooks as he investigates a contemporary disappearance.