When Stuart Neville’s terrific first-novel The Twelve came out many reviewers emphasised on his savage dissection of the Irish Peace Process, and the way that paramilitary politicians on both sides white-washed their violent pasts, muzzling the pitbull murderers they controlled, to reinvent themselves as upstanding politicians.
Reading it now, a few years later, the Troubles seem even further away, and The Twelve plays out as a simple existential tale, a modern-day Western, in which a man of out time – former IRA hitman Gerry Fegan, an alcoholic mental-case – attempts to atone for the dozen men, women and children he killed by hunting down the men he holds responsible for making him pull the trigger. For me, The Twelve evokes Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, James Ellroy and Clint Eastwood’s troubled Will Munny in Unforgiven.
Haunted by the mute ghosts of the people he killed, Fegan attempts to atone the only way he knows how — by killing. But when Fegan begins his vendetta, he threatens to bring the fragile peace process to its knees and he becomes hunted by all sides. Fegan’s bloody trail, for example, brings him into the orbit of undercover policeman Davy Campbell, a man who also has no future – he’s been playing a duplicitous double-game so long that he knows nothing else.
It’s a novel full of compromised, morally-reprehensible men wrestling with redundancy in a shifting world. Like all good Westerns, The Twelve comes to a chilling and violent end at a remote homestead, the home and fortress of Bull O’Kane a former IRA kingpin and gangster, and perhaps the only man in the entire novel who has stuck steadfastly to his old ideals: looking after Bull O’ Kane.
The Twelve has got a narrative that pumps remorsefully like blood from a wound. It’s terrifically violent, and the device of the mute ghosts is a nifty shorthand for Fegan’s mental torment. As a result, The Twelve’s remorseless progress never creaks to a halt under the weight of Fegan’s self-pity.
And at its heart, there’s just a tiny glint of the supernatural, a slight suggestion that Fegan’s ghostly tormentors may not be just figments of his tortured imagination – in the US the title of the novel is Ghosts of Belfast.
Neville followed-up this novel with two sequels, Collusion and Stolen Souls, where the emphasis shifts to Belfast copper DI Jack Lennon, and I certainly look forward to reading those. It’s always nutritious when writers discuss how they got published, and Neville tells his own story at his website here — check it out, it’s worth a read.
What I Liked: Neville mentioned in an interview that Fegan evokes more interest among his readers than his more sympathetic protagonist Lennon. It makes me wonder again how bad your protagonist can be. Writers, agents and publishers seem to have pretty strong opinions on the matter one way or the other.
However, there’s such a strong sense of yearning for redemption in Fegan. He’s a bad man desperately trying to do good, in the only way he knows how – by doing bad. Fegan’s turbulent emotions drive the narrative forward. He’s vulnerable and sad and a stone-cold killer. It’s proof once again that your protagonist – if written well – doesn’t have to conform to rigid ideas of good and bad. If his or her motivation is strong enough, if their very soul is at stake, then you can understand their needs, if not necessarily like what they do.
And what about you — who are you favourite killers and assassins in crime thriller fiction?