Stuart Neville Talks Ratlines & The Enemy Within

Writing.ie | Magazine | Crime | Interviews
Ratlines, Stuart Neville

By Vanessa O'Loughlin

Stuart Neville’s debut novel, The Twelve (published in the USA as The Ghosts of Belfast), won the Mystery/Thriller category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was picked as one of the top crime novels of 2009 by both the New York Times and the LA Times. The French edition of The Ghosts of Belfast, Les Fantômes de Belfast, won Le Prix Mystère de la Critique du Meilleur Roman Étranger and Grand Prix du Roman Noir Étranger. A pretty impressive start to a writing career! I was lucky enough to get a preview copy of The Twelve, and was completely enthralled – it’s one of those books that you don’t easily forget.

Stuart’s story of how he was discovered as an author will give anyone reading this and waiting for that big break, a real boost. Stuart explains: “Chance and serendipity played a big part in my getting published.  After months of revising The Twelve, or The Ghosts of Belfast as it’s known in America, I wanted to revisit one of the main characters.  I wrote a short story, and almost on a whim, submitted it to a web-based crime fiction zine called ThugLit.com.  I was delighted when they accepted, and was pleased that I’d get a T-shirt for my troubles.  What I didn’t expect was that one of New York’s greatest literary agents would read the story and get in touch to ask about the novel I mentioned in my bio.  Thus I sent the manuscript off to Nat Sobel, and the rest is history.”

Launching a career with such a great book has it’s downside though – there’s always that nagging thought in the back of the writer’s mind: will you be able to do it again? Rest assured, talent doesn’t go away, and Stuart has been shortlisted for a glittering array of awards, including the Barry, Macavity, Dilys awards, as well as the Irish Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year. He has twice been longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. And he has since published two critically acclaimed sequels to The Twelve, Collusion and Stolen Souls. As Mark Billingham says “Stuart Neville’s books just get better and better and Ratlines is simply superb. A shocking moment in history is the backdrop to a hugely gripping thriller and I really hope we see Albert Ryan again.”

Ratlines is a total departure from the contemporary crime Stuart’s become known for – as Ken Bruen describes it, “Ratlines is a wildly entertaining blend of fact and history in Ireland in the 60s. Hugely ambitious, it is a superb mystery but in addition, a spotlight of a slice of Irish history largely ignored. Intrigue, real figures from the Irish political scene , complex mystery and told in the exceptional style that Stuart Neville has made his own. Jameson and Nazis, Irish rebel songs and Charles Haughey, it’s a bold and brilliant blend.”

Here’s the plot:

It’s Ireland, 1963. As the Irish people prepare to welcome President John F. Kennedy to the land of his ancestors, a German businessman is murdered in a seaside guesthouse. He is the third foreign national to die within a few days, and Minister for Justice Charles Haughey is desperate to protect a shameful secret: the dead men were all former Nazis granted asylum by the Irish government.

A note from the killers is found on the corpse, addressed to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando. It says simply: ‘We are coming for you. Await our call.’

Lieutenant Albert Ryan, Directorate of Intelligence, is ordered to investigate the murders and protect Skorzeny. But as he infiltrates Ireland’s secret network of former Nazis and collaborators, Ryan must make a terrible choice: his country or his conscience?

I asked Stuart why the change in direction? He explained, “It was the subject matter that grabbed me – Nazis harboured by the Irish state in the years following World War II. I’m really not much of a history buff, but the story called for a historical setting.”

As with all his previous novels, the characters are expertly drawn, but in Ratlines Stuart intricately weaves real historical figures and imagined characters – a challenge for any writer. I wondered if he had felt constrained by the real characters’ lives and personalities and the need to keep them true to life? He told me, “Some of the historical figures are more faithful than others. The better known ones, like Charles Haughey and Otto Skorzeny,  required a different approach than, say, Celestin Laine or Catherine Beauchamp, who was based on Francene Rozec. With Haughey and Skorzeny, because they were such larger-than-life figures to begin with, it was tricky to steer them away from becoming caricatures. You really couldn’t invent someone like Otto Skorzeny, so ironically it was hard to keep a real person believable.

With Laine and Rozec, I took far more liberties with them, starting with their names. Laine actually lived under the name of Neven Haneff while in Ireland, and I used Rozec’s pen name – she was a Breton author – so that I could have a little distance between the fictional and real persons.”

Obviously there had to be  a lot of research underpinning this story, I asked how Stuart had approached this and what was needed to ensure that his story rang true. He explained, “There was a huge amount of research involved, far more than a novel with a contemporary setting. And it was a very different kind of research. For a modern day thriller, research focuses on the mechanics of things, how a particular gun works, wound ballistics, crime scene procedures and so on. With a story set fifty years in the past, however, it was more about how things felt, the attitudes of the day. I got a lot of help from a couple of friends who were around Dublin at the time; they talked about the oppressively grey atmosphere of Ireland in the early 60s, how different Dublin was to the cosmopolitan European capital we know today.”

One of the key things about Stuart’s writing is the originality of his stories – Stephen King talks about great story coming from the collision of two unrelated ideas, so I had to ask how the idea for Ratlines came to him: “It sprang from a documentary I saw a few years ago, Ireland’s Nazis by the late Cathal O’Shannon. I’d been vaguely aware that some Nazis had wound up in Ireland, but I’d always assumed they were very few in number, and that they’d sneaked in through some back door. The documentary shocked me with two revelations: first, that there were dozens of Nazis and Axis collaborators in Ireland after the war, and second, that they were allowed in with the full knowledge and complicity of the government.

Although Skorzeny wasn’t the most heinous of the war criminals allowed into Ireland – that dubious honour would go to Andrija Artukovic – he was easily the most interesting, a ready-made villain. As I started researching Skorzeny’s time here, I realised that he crossed paths with another notorious figure: Charles Haughey. Haughey was Minister for Justice in the early 60s, and as such was responsible for immigration and asylum seekers. The final piece of the puzzle was Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963; that gave me a specific time to work around, a backdrop that American readers could latch on to, and a way of putting pressure on Haughey as part of the story.”

Like The Twelve, Ratlines also has its roots in a short story, as Stuart reveals, “I’d actually written about Albert Ryan previously in a short story called The Craftsman. It’s available in Declan Burke’s Down These Green Streets anthology, and has been adapted into a short film by a young director called Lee Murphy. That story features Ryan as an elderly man. I liked him as a character, and I wanted to see what he was like in earlier life, so it seemed a logical step to make him the protagonist of Ratlines. It also meant I had a fairly well formed character to start with, and I was able to find out what made him who he was.”

I always find the writing process of great writers fascinating, and with my notebook at the ready, I asked Stuart to explain how he writes. He told me, “I generally don’t have a particular method, but I do need two things for a project to work: a point of departure, and a point of destination. A beginning and an ending, in other words. What happens in between is a process of discovery, and a great part of the pleasure of writing is in surprising myself. There are a couple of major twists in Ratlines, for example, and I didn’t know they were coming until the words were going onto the page.

For most of my novels, I’ve written the first third fairly quickly, then I usually hit a wall. At that point, I get out a notebook and pen and start jotting down thoughts about my characters. Who are they? What do they want? Where are the conflicts between them? For me, plot is a result of character, or more specifically, the conflict between the different characters’ desires, and how far they are willing to go in pursuit of them. Here’s a hypothetical example: Jim desires that Bob should die, but Bob’s desire is to live. How far is Jim willing to go to bring about Bob’s death? How far will Bob go to ensure his own survival? Plot springs from the choices those characters make in order to achieve their desires, and the more drastic the choices the better. For example, would either sacrifice a loved one for their desire?”

Extremely impressed, particularly with Stuart’s approach to the 30,000 word slump that both Sinead Moriarty and Declan Hughes describe so vividly in The National Emerging Writer Programme videos, I asked  Stuart if he had any tips for new writers – and got some rock solid advice on beating the enemy within: “A common mistake I see is writers hanging all their hopes on one novel. They finish one book, then flog it to death instead of moving on. Unless they’ve come from a background like screenwriting or journalism, few published novelists’ debuts are actually the first books they’ve written. In my case, The Twelve was actually the third novel I’d completed. The previous two will never see the light of day; they were my training grounds where I made all my mistakes. Too many hopeful writers get that one novel down and think that’s their ticket when they should be writing another.”

Ratlines is out on 3rd January and available in all good bookshops and for your Kindle – if you were wondering what to do with those book vouchers,  what better start to the New Year? To find out what makes Stuart’s writing so widely praised, you can read an excerpt from Ratlines here.

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