The first book I read by Stuart Neville was The Ghosts of Belfast, an impressive modern noir thriller set in Belfast, where former IRA terrorists and Unionists rub shoulders in the gritty politics of the present.
Detective Inspector Jack Lennon was only a secondary character in that book, but Neville continued the series with three more books starring Lennon. I liked them enough to binge-read the rest of the series, so I will be reviewing all of them together.
Each book stands alone well enough, revolving around someone getting killed and Jack Lennon trying to figure out who, while keeping himself alive and dealing with his personal and professional problems. However, as the series become more character-focused, it follows the pattern of most detective series in which readers are rewarded for knowing the histories of the characters, meaning if you like any of them, it is better to read them in order.
Note: I try not to reveal too many spoilers, but since I am reviewing the last three books in the series together, there will be references in some to events in the previous books.
Soho Crime, 2010, 384 pages
Collusion returns listeners to Belfast, where a new mystery haunts its underbelly. Jack Lennon is a Detective Inspector trying to track down his former lover, Marie McKenna, and their daughter, but his superiors tell him to back off. Bull O'Kane is a bitter old man who will stop at nothing for vengeance. The Traveller is an assassin without pity or remorse, who stalks Belfast, tying up loose ends. Forced into the center of it all is former IRA paramilitary Gerry Fegan, who must confront his past - and The Traveller - for the fight of his life.
In the second book in the series, Jack Lennon becomes the main character. The anti-hero of the first book, Gerry Fegan, a former IRA killer haunted by the ghosts of his victims, has fled to America.
Lennon has settled into his new role as an underpaid but up-and-coming detective on the force. His family has disowned him for becoming a "peeler" (cop), and he has few friends. Then he finds out that the Belfast PD's "Special Branch" has been concealing things, like the whereabouts of his ex, a Catholic girl who also suffered unpersoning for having hooked up with a cop, and his young daughter. Lennon immediately begins turning over rocks and derailing his own career to find them.
Meanwhile, Gerry Fegan had escaped to New York where he wanted to just fade into the shadows, working as an undocumented laborer. Of course the boys back home aren't going to allow that. Bull O'Kane, his old nemesis, has put out a hit on him, and the hitman is a dangerous, almost unworldly assassin known only as the Traveller.
The Traveller stalks through this book like Anton Chighur, pitilessly killing anyone unfortunate to be in his way. He is given more characterization than McCarthy's revenant. As his nom de guerre implies, he is supposedly an Irish Traveller, spawned by a mother who threw him out into the world as an act of brutal maternal love. The Traveller is intrigued by Gerry Fegan, who seems like a man just as dangerous and fearsome as himself. The difference between them is that the Traveller is, while possessed of some curiosity and passion, without a conscience, while Fegan is trying to atone for his past sins.
Since Jack Lennon's ex was part of the feud that ignited the original bloodbath back in Belfast, she's a loose end to be tied up, which means there will be an inevitable showdown between Lennon, Fegan, and the Traveller.
The "Collusion" of the title is between the various parties in the still-violent and roiling world of modern Ireland, post-Troubles. Cops, criminals, unionists, IRA, everyone, is now passing names and money to each other, selling each other out, all just trying to stay aboard the money train. The few people who actually have principles — whether legal, like Detective Lennon, or amoral, like Gerry Fegan — are just more people in the way, putting their own loved ones in danger when they won't let the bodies lie.
Soho Crime, 2011, 354 pages
Galya Petrova travels to Ireland on a promise that she will work for a nice Russian family, teaching their children English. Instead, she is dragged into the world of modern slavery, sold to a Belfast brothel, and held there against her will.
She escapes at a terrible cost - the slaying of one of her captors - and takes refuge with a man who offers his help. As the traffickers she fled scour the city for her, seeking revenge for their fallen comrade, Galya faces an even greater danger: her savior is not what he seems. She is not the first trafficked girl to have crossed his threshold, and she must fight to avoid their fate.
Detective Inspector Jack Lennon wants a quiet Christmas with his daughter, but when an apparent turf war between rival gangs leaves bodies across the city, he knows he won't get it. As he digs deeper into the case, he realizes an escaped prostitute is the cause of the violence, and soon he is locked in a deadly race with two very different killers.
Following the events of Collusion, Detective Inspector Jack Lennon is on his boss's shit list. He's constantly assigned mandatory night and weekend shifts and called in unexpectedly at the most inconvenient times, in order to disrupt his personal life and make him miserable enough to quit or transfer elsewhere, or so his higher ups hope. But Lennon too stubborn to do that — plus, he doesn't really have anywhere to go. So one dreary Christmas when he's been forced to leave his daughter with his new girlfriend, he gets a call involving an escaped prostitute, a beaten cop, and a case that drags him into Belfast's seedy underworld, and the collusion with law enforcement we are all too familiar with.
The MacGuffin of this book is Galya Petrova, a young girl trafficked from the Ukraine who kills one of her captors and escapes. This earns her the enmity of the brother of the man she killed, who runs the trafficking ring, but is in fact, despite being a crime lord coke-fiend, a scared little boy whenever his momma calls. His mother, the hard bitch who brought him up in the world of organized crime and trafficking women, demands he kill the whore who killed his brother. Galya, a marked woman, seeks help from the first man she comes across. He is solicitous and all too willing to "rescue" this poor soiled dove. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a serial killer.
That's where Detective Lennon steps into it, trying to find Galya before either her former "employers" do or her captor makes her into another set of keepsakes to bury under his floorboards. Complicating Lennon's life is the continual corruption of his superiors, and a threatening phone call from his old friend the Traveller.
Galya's story wraps up tidily — perhaps a bit too tidily — while Lennon naturally ends the book in even worse shape.
Stolen Souls, the third book in the series, is starting accumulate a cast of recurring characters and a history that has to be revisited in each new volume, but hasn't yet built up the cruft of a series that's gone on for a dozen volumes. While the series hasn't run out of steam yet, it did make me wonder whether Neville would bring it to a resolution, or just keep Lennon plugging along as an imperfect cop in a dirty police force.
The Final Silence
Soho Crime, 2014, 353 pages
Belfast, Northern Ireland: Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from an uncle she never knew. It doesn't take her long to clear out the dead man's remaining possessions, but one room remains stubbornly locked. When Rea finally forces it open, she discovers inside a chair, a table - and a leather-bound book, its pages filled with locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims. Horrified, Rea wants to go straight to the police but her family intervenes, fearing that scandal will mar her politician father's public image. Rea turns to the only person she can think of: disgraced police inspector Jack Lennon. He is facing suspension from the force and his new supervisor, DCI Serena Flanagan, is the toughest cop he's ever met. But a gruesome murder brings the dead man's terrifying journal to the top of the Belfast police's priority list.
The fourth (and so far final, but see below) book in the Jack Lennon series includes a fair amount of personal drama and spoilers of events in the previous books. I would definitely not recommend anyone start here.
The Final Silence, like the previous books in the series, delivers a gritty, satisfying if somewhat predictable mystery, an interesting cast of characters, and loads of police corruption and dirty Irish politics, where the Troubles have been over for years but everyone is still acting like they were yesterday.
Detective Inspector Jack Lennon is now addicted to painkillers, and his relationship with his girlfriend is going into the dumpster. He's trying to keep custody of his young daughter, with her deceased mother's hostile family very belligerently trying to assert control over her.
The mystery is the daughter of a rising Irish politician discovering a secret in her recently deceased uncle's house. Turns out her father's brother was a serial killer (this series involves a lot of serial killers...) who kept a detailed journal. Naturally, her father doesn't want this getting out. So she turns to a cop she dated briefly, years ago — one Jack Lennon.
That gets Lennon involved, even while he's fighting his own case as the force tries to suspend him and his ex's family tries to take his daughter from him. There are several twists, but one of the main focuses of this book seems to be the introduction of Lennon's new boss, DCI Serena Flanagan, who apparently is the star of Neville's next detective series.
Flanagan remains a rather stock character in this book, the female cop who has to be a hard-assed bitch in order to hold her own in a testosterone-soaked police department. Her own personal dramas seem rather artificial, added to humanize her, but she does have some interesting moments and she's smart and hard-headed enough to carry a story on her own. By the end of this book, Jack Lennon has pretty much burned all his bridges and Flanagan has been set up to take over as the main character, so I'll probably check out her series and see if Lennon makes an appearance there.
Verdict: Stuart Neville's Belfast noir series is gritty and hardboiled, sour like whiskey, violent like Belfast, tough like the Irish. I enjoyed all four books, though the first was the best, and by the fourth it was starting to show some signs of wear common to most detective series. The writing is tight and the plots never went off the rails, so it is a good series for connoisseurs of crime thrillers.
Also by Stuart Neville: My review of The Ghosts of Belfast.
My complete list of book reviews.