The Irish crime-fiction wave rises to new heights with Stuart Neville's third novel, the tight, telescopic thriller "Stolen Souls." The writing here is mature and assured: There are no extraneous words or characters, no discussion of Northern Ireland's long and sorrowful "Troubles." We are beyond politics, beyond the Celtic Tiger and its financial meltdown, mired in a crumbling 21st century Belfast wasteland where Lithuanian gangs bed down with Ulster Loyalists and Republicans as law enforcement looks the other way.
And in this world, there is only a girl on the run. The bad guys chasing her. The worse guy waiting with duct tape and pliers. The flawed cop. The escape-proof house of horrors. And the ticking clock.
The action starts with the opening sentences and doesn't let up for 349 pages: "Blood hot on her hands. Red. The brightest red Galya had ever seen. Her mind tilted, her vision disappearing down a black tunnel. No, don't faint."
With its stark violence and horrific implications of torture, "Stolen Souls" isn't for the faint of heart.
Irish crime fiction today — whether lyrical like Ken Bruen or character-driven like Benjamin Black's (John Banville) 1950s Dublin — is more Thomas Hobbes than William Butler Yeats. It's cold. The rain is relentless. The landscape is bleak and so's the mood. Most everyone is depressed. Violence is casual and endemic and corruption is a given.
Neville burst onto the literary scene with 2009's "The Ghosts of Belfast," which was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award for best mystery. His second novel, "Collusion," was shortlisted for the award last year. Both books tackled Ireland's political troubles head-on. "Ghosts" introduced Gerry Feegan, a former IRA assassin who is plagued by the specters of those he's murdered and decides to assuage his conscience by eliminating his former bosses. "Collusion" ushered in protagonist detective Jack Lennon and examined the smoldering hatreds and intertwined relationships between Catholics and Protestant paramilitaries in Ulster. We also met Lennon's girlfriend and his 6-year-old daughter, Ellen.
As "Stolen Souls" opens, Ellen's mother is dead in a double-crossing fiery inferno, and little Ellen lives with her guilt-plagued father as Christmas Eve nears.
The Galya we met on Page 1 is a Ukrainian sex slave who's about to go on the run in Belfast. But Neville takes what has become a trope of crime fiction — the trafficked prostitute — and gives her the strength and forbearance of the Russian army at Stalingrad. Galya may be a victim of circumstance and bad luck, but she's nobody's fool, and you begin rooting for her almost immediately, due in no small part to the intimacy of Neville's prose as he takes us inside her head. He makes us feel her almost paralyzing fear, her atavistic determination to survive and her prayers to the dead grandmother who didn't raise a quitter.
The blood on Galya's hands belongs to a dead Lithuanian hoodlum who tried to rape her. She escapes as thugs dump his body into the sea. Her story is juxtaposed with that of Lennon, a flawed vessel who has his own uneasy history with prostitutes. A third thread follows ruthless Lithuanian gang leader Arturas Strazdas and his henchman Herkus as they track their missing "property."
But the Lithuanians are milquetoast compared with what lies ahead for Galya when she's rescued by a Christian pastor promising deliverance.
By setting almost half the book in a creepy old house in an industrial wasteland with reinforced doors, tempered-glass windows and no neighbors to hear you scream, Neville ups the stakes even higher.
Neville says he's not writing a series but a set of interlinked novels with changing characters set in the haunted land of Belfast á la the books by his favorite writer, James Ellroy. But where Ellroy writes a furious caldron of nonstop vintage action, one senses a diamond-hard stillness at the heart of Neville's prose, despite the hurtling plot.
This leaves us poised between savoring the beauty of his words ("His eyes made darting movements, like insects trapped in a jar." ) and reading madly to get to the end.
Neville says he wanted his third novel to pay homage to the thrillers he loved as a youth.
"They were maybe 200 pages long and were just punch-punch-punch, that go full tilt from the first to last page, no flab," he told the Irish Times this year.
I'd say he succeeded.
Hamilton is an L.A.-based crime writer who's latest novel is "Damage Control." She edited the Edgar Award winning anthology "Los Angeles Noir."