The Final Silence: Susan Condon Talks to Stuart Neville
I first had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Neville at the Killer Books Crime Festival in Derry last November and vowed to catch up on his books as soon as I returned to Dublin. I’m glad I eventually fulfilled that promise – I enjoyed The Final Silence so much that Neville has been added to my ever-growing list of favourite writers.
His 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. He has been shortlisted for various awards, including the Barry, Macavity, Dilys awards, as well as the Irish Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year.
His first four novels have each been longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year while his fourth novel, Ratlines, about Nazis harboured by the Irish state following WWII, was shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and is currently in development for television.
He’s received high praise indeed from such hard-hitters as Lee Child; ‘an exceptional talent, crime fiction doesn’t get much better.” I found Neville’s writing style reminiscent of Ian Rankin who is quoted as saying of Neville, “fast, furious, bloody and good.” While James Elroy commented on The Twelve, ‘the best first novel I’ve read in years. It crackles. It grips you by the throat. It’s a flat-out terror trip. This is some guy to watch out for in a dark alley.”
The Final Silence twists and turns like a rollercoaster with a powerful plot at its core. To whet your appetite, here’s the blurb:
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. Inside its pages are locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims.
Horrified, Rea wants to go straight to the police but when her family intervene, fearing the damage it could cause to her father’s political career, Rea turns to the only person she can think of: DI Jack Lennon. But Lennon is facing his own problems. Suspended from the force and hounded by DCI Serena Flanagan, the toughest cop he’s ever faced, Lennon must unlock the secrets of a dead man’s terrifying journal.
This is Neville’s fifth novel and although he doesn’t get too excited over the publication date any more, he does concede “there’s still a buzz when I finish a new novel, and the editing process, then getting page proofs, before finally getting the finished product in my hands.” A question I always love to ask authors is where they first saw their debut novel appear. Some are unlucky enough to have to check back a number of times after the publication date; but thankfully, that was not the case for Neville. “The first time I saw The Twelve was in an Eason’s in Craigavon.” He goes on to tell me that, “the book wasn’t supposed to be out for a few days, so I wasn’t expecting to see it through the window when I was walking past.”
With regard to social media, Neville, before the explosion of Twitter and Facebook, was successfully blogging as “the primary way of reaching out to other writers and publishing people.” This is something that agents and publishers regularly tell new writers to do and in Neville’s case, it became pivotal in his writing success. He admits, “it was the encouragement of other blogging writers that kept me going and gave me the confidence to submit the short story that caught my agent’s attention.” Neville is a fan of the short story, which has served him well, considering New York literary agent, Nat Sobel contacted him after reading The Last Dance which was published online. “The Twelve actually began as a short story, and so did Ratlines. I’m very fond of the form, both as a reader and a writer. I wish I had more time to spend on them, like I had when I was starting out. My story Juror 8 was published as part of the OxCrimes, an anthology with proceeds going to Oxfam, and it’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever written. The format gives you a chance to experiment in a way you can’t with a novel. I’ve also got a couple of novellas I’m hoping to have a crack at over the next year or so.”
So many writers have a first unpublished novel lurking in the background and Neville, it appears, is no exception – his is a supernatural story entitled Conduit. Crime fiction may be my favourite genre, but supernatural would be a close second so I wondered if this unseen horror story would ever see the light of day. “No, I think Conduit will remain a trunk novel. For one thing, I’ve already recycled parts of it for other stories! The killer in Stolen Souls, for example, originally appeared in Conduit.” Honest to a fault, he says, “not that long ago I dug it out and tried reading it. It really wasn’t very good at all, and I realised my time would be better spent working on something new.”
When I ask Neville to tell me a little about Belfast Noir, an anthology of short stories set in Belfast which he edited along with Adrian McKinty, his enthusiasm is palpable. “Adrian approached me about Belfast Noir about a year or so ago. It’s been a great project to work on. You’d think fourteen stories set in the same city would lead to a lot of recurring themes and ideas, but every single story has been distinctive in tone and subject matter. The publisher, Akashic Books, has very specific requirements about balancing gender among the contributors, and also seeking stories from writers not know for crime fiction. That led to some great offerings from people like Glenn Patterson, Ian McDonald, and Lucy Caldwell, all from outside the genre.” Surprisingly, he went on to tell me, they found “that female crime writers from Northern Ireland are very thin on the ground. Women are well represented south of the border, but not up here, and I really can’t think why.”
With his first book, The Twelve, retitled The Ghosts of Belfast for the USA market and the film adaptation to be retitled Last Man Out I was interested to know how Neville felt about the changes. “Titles are always a tricky subject for me! The Ghosts of Belfast was my debut’s original title, but it was renamed for the UK and Irish markets because having Belfast on the cover makes the book a hard sell – nowhere more so than in Belfast itself! I think things are changing, though, with TV shows like The Fall breaking down those barriers. But there are often difficulties with titles. For example, the original title for Ratlines was Dweller on the Threshold, but it was considered too much of a mouthful for a thriller. And now I’m approaching the end of the first draft of a new novel,” he confided, “and I’ve no idea what I’m going to call it.”
Ratlines is currently being adapted for television with Neville as screenwriter and executive producer. Exciting times for any writer, yet when I ask him about it Neville remains coy, “it’s very early days for the Ratlines TV adaptation – we’re still in development, and there’s a long way to go before being in production – but already it’s a very collaborative process compared to writing a novel. I’m very conscious that I’m a novice in this field, so I’m glad of having experienced producers to call on when I need help.”
Writers produce so many different characters – I’m always interested to know who their favourite is and why. Neville shares a little about his next novel as he tells me that at the moment he’s “very focused on DCI Serena Flanagan, who is a supporting character in The Final Silence, and the protagonist in the book I’m writing at the minute. She’s allowing me to step away from many of the tropes of police officers in crime fiction in a way that DI Jack Lennon hasn’t – he’s that lone wolf cop that we’re familiar with, whereas Flanagan is something very different. Having said that,” he continues, “I’ll always have a soft spot for Gerry Fegan.”
Inspiration for The Final Silence came when, “early in 2013, a relative of mine passed away suddenly after a short illness. We were clearing her house in the following days, and I kept feeling like an intruder, wondering how I would feel if someone was looking through my most personal possessions. We all have secrets, no matter how innocuous.” Neville tells me that, “in the weeks that followed, a question occurred to me: What if someone was clearing a relative’s house and found something truly awful?”
Neville admits to being a writer who wings it for the most part. “I do need a beginning and an ending, a point of departure and a point of destination, but everything between that is up for grabs. On more than one occasion, a story has taken a complete left turn while I was writing it, something that wouldn’t have happened if I’d mapped it all out beforehand. Stolen Souls and The Final Silence in particular surprised me while I was writing them, which I hope means they surprised the reader.”
Quoted as saying that he could and would write about places other than Belfast, I ask Neville where he had in mind and if there was a story already bubbling away in the background? “My story Juror 8 is set in 1950s New York; I set part of Collusion there too,” he says, going on to tell me “I do have a story kicking around that would be set in the wilds of Arizona, but I don’t know if I’ll get time to write it.”
For the future, Neville is keeping his fingers crossed that the adaptations of The Twelve and Ratlines will have come to fruition and he hopes to be “well into a sequel to Ratlines, a story set about seven years later, with Albert Ryan and Charles Haughey squaring off once more.”
(c) Susan Condon
The Final Silence is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here.
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, has written a crime fiction thriller set in New York City which she is about to unleash. Her short stories have won the Jonathan Swift Award, the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and the Sport and Cultural Council, City of Dublin VEC and she was twice long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and My Weekly magazine.
Check out her blog: www.susancondon.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter: @SusanCondon