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.”