Saturday, 26 January 2013


It's 1963 and John Kennedy is about to land in Ireland for a visit to the country of his ancestors. But when a German businessman is murdered in guest house overlooking Galway Bay, it begins to look like an epidemic, as he is the third foreigner living in Ireland to be killed in the space of days. And Ireland's justice minister, one Charles J Haughey, is worried someone might start to notice that these corpses belong to ex-Nazis who've found post-war havens in Ireland.

Albert Ryan, a lieutenant in G2, the intelligence directorate, is assigned to Haughey, to investigate the murders but more importantly to protect the man who may be their ultimate target, Otto Skorzeny, the famous SS commando leader. Ryan is a protestant who fought in the British army during what Haughey, and the Irish, called 'the Emergency' (in much the same way the British call the prolonged insurrection in Northen Ireland 'the Troubles') and he would prefer to avoid the obvious political snakepit. But he as he investigates, he finds there is even more going on than he may have feared.

Stuart Neville has built up a tremendous story in Ratlines, with the immediate awkwardness of friendly Ireland harbouring Nazis a point of contention which puts all the other issues into sharper focus. Ryan's family back in Carrickmacree is being victimised for his perceived betrayal, and later the IRA will be brought into play by their putative allies—in the maelstrom of Irish politics, not even tribal loyalties are sure, and my enemy's enemy may or may not be my friend. And in that situation, Neville has built two very distinct villains, along with a cast of people who are better or worse as they try to pursue their own benefit on a smaller scale.

Skorzeny is a more standard sort of evil, even for a Nazi, a sociopathic pragmatist who will do what is necessary to get what he needs.The ratlines of the book's title are the escape routes taken by Nazis after the war, and Skorzeny knows them, and controls a fund which helps them out in their new identities, making him a power broker both in his world and in Ireland. His clever ruthlessness is essential to the drive of the novel, and Neville does well. And he creates a nice sort of contrast with the appealing, but equally ruthless, American-born member of the Mossad who is on Skorzeny's trail.

But the real vicious evil figure is Haughey, whose machinations are the stuff of politics in general, and Irish politics in particular. He is a glad-handing bully-boy, a facile liar, and a man who's always weighing the scales of what's in it for him. Neville sets the scene before the novel begins with an author's note, pointing out what bits of the book match actual history—among the facts being Haughey's presence with Skorzeny at a reception in 1957, Skorzeny's purchase of a mansion in 1959, and Haughey's denial to parliament in 1963 that Skorzeny had ever lived in Ireland.

As the plot gets complicated, things become more action-oriented, but Neville restrains himself from a bloody finish, whether by shoot-out or torture, and twists it nicely. Haughey, of course, must go on. And Nazis, we recall, have their uses. An offbeat thriller which tells us, in the end, a lot that is nuanced about Ireland.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846557378

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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