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Written by Stuart Neville — It is 1963, and in a few weeks John F Kennedy, the young, charismatic president of America will arrive in Dublin to visit his ancestral homeland. The Irish justice minister, Charles Haughey, is faced with a dilemma. His government, compromised over its controversial neutrality during World War II, has found itself giving refuge to a random collection of ex-Nazis, Breton separatists and other escapees from the new Europe. Otto Skorzeny is a celebrated SS Kommando credited with the daring rescue of Benito Mussolini from his Italian captors. As less celebrated colleagues of Skorzeny are assassinated, perhaps by a rogue Mossad group, Haughey is forced to enlist the help of Albert Ryan, a war-scarred Irishman who defied his parents and his upbringing by joining the British Army to fight the Nazis.

Ratlines follows trails of deceit, bribery, vengeance and savagery as they spread out from the Edwardian streets of Dublin, tracing their way back to the death camps of Poland, into the hermetic silence of Swiss bank vaults, and finally to the murderous killing fields of rural Ireland. Political, historical and moral issues bubble to the surface of this novel on every page, but at its core it is still a story about crime. We have murder, corruption, blackmail and torture happening under the noses of the police, and the earnest but indefatigable Lieutenant Ryan has to make a choice between his conscience and his country. He is beaten, bruised and brutalised by men more innately violent and less principled than he is, but despite his apparent naivete, he achieves a kind of redemption.

Ryan has to contend with a  rogue group of ex-SAS mavericks who are motivated by financial greed rather than idealism, and at the back of his mind is the threat posed to his ageing parents. They are shopkeepers in a country village, and their Protestant faith makes them vulnerable to Republican thugs and nationalists who still resent the fact that Ryan chose to fight in the British Army. Skilfully woven into the narrative is Ryan’s relationship with the beautiful and fragile Celia Hulme, and our fear for her safety adds to the many anxious moments in the story.

My only criticism of this fine novel is generic, rather than specific to the actual writing. Stuart Neville has entered the domain of John Lawton and Philip Kerr in positioning a fictional detective among historical figures and real life events. This is fascinating and exciting; however the trouble is that it removes certain outcomes from the equation. We only have to spend five minutes on Google to know that Charles Haughey, Otto Skorzeny and the unspeakable Celestin Laine all survived the events of 1963. Any anxiety aroused by Albert Ryan’s confrontations with these men is nullified.

This is a challenging and beautifully written book, which poses uncomfortable questions about The Republic of Ireland during what its politicians chose to call ‘The Emergency’. Albert Ryan answers the questions in his own way and by his own actions. Stuart Neville does not sit in judgment, at least not in any overt way, but he leaves us with a deep sense of unease about the political and moral ambiguities which have shaped modern Ireland.

Ratlines comes out on 3 January.

Harvill Secker

CFL Rating: 5 stars

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