If you are a novelist looking to be published, I have bad news for you: Stuart Neville sets the bar for beginners very, very high. In his own debut, he begins with a fascinating premise, topical but yet not likely to be yesterday's news anytime soon. Into the premise he inserts a half-dozen fully realized and wholly different main characters, and makes the arcs of their stories intersect in a myriad ways -- and makes us care about it all.
His protagonist, one Gerry Fegan, is a former... well, a former thug (a "hard man") for the Irish Republican Army. Whether simply strong-arming someone insufficiently supportive of the IRA, or killing an outright opponent, Fegan followed orders loyally and without question.
Without outward question, that is; inwardly, he had many moments of doubt and unease. During years of imprisonment and ever since his release, these questions come back to haunt him, and do so in the worst way imaginable for a killer: as his victims' ghosts. They will not let him sleep, and often they will not even let him rest. Moreover, they don't bedevil him merely at nighttime: even in his daylight hours, although silent, they will not let him forget them.
From the book's opening:
Maybe if he had one more drink they'd leave him alone. Gerry Fegan told himself that lie before every swallow. He chased the whiskey's burn with a cool black mouthful of Guinness and placed the glass back on the table. Look up and they'll be gone, he thought.What do they want from him? Simple confession will not do, because confession can lead to absolution and these dead will not settle for any "justice" so passive. They want blood for blood. They want not Fegan's life, but the lives of those who condemned them to death, either by giving him his orders or by looking the other way rather than intervene.
No. They were still there, still staring. Twelve of them if he counted the baby in its mother's arms.
...the twelve would follow Fegan through the streets of Belfast, into his house, up his stairs, and into his bedroom. If he was lucky, and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear. That was the only time they made a sound, when he was alone and on the verge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it.
Neville has chosen a simple device to ensure a modicum of tension throughout the book. He's organized The Twelve into 61 chapters, grouped into sections, and each section has a title (whereas the chapters are simply numbered). The title of the first section: "Twelve." The title of the second: "Eleven." And so on through the remainder of the book, like the rhythmic, relentless tolling of a bell marking Fegan's passage to true freedom.
There's another tension in The Twelve as well, one of the oldest of all. Straight into Gerry Fegan's personal hell comes a woman -- a living woman -- and her little daughter. Years ago, Marie McKenna committed one of the worst crimes possible, in the IRA's eyes: she "took up with" an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary:
Even worse, he was a Catholic cop at a time when joining the police was still an act of treachery. [Marie] was already in poor favour amongst many Republicans as she wrote for one of the Unionist rags, the Telegraph or the Newsletter, Fegan couldn't remember which. A romance with a peeler cut her off from all but her mother.The cop had endured a difficult life with Marie until she got pregnant, then "made his excuses" and took off. Fegan had had nothing to do with any of this in the past, but in the present he cannot escape his growing entanglement with Marie and Ellen. Now Fegan, and now the reader, must care not just about the dead and the soon to die, but about those in whose veins the blood still pulses freely.
And all of them must care, too -- in a different way -- about those in the old-line IRA who can't help but notice the one point where all the fresh trails of death seem to converge...
As you can see from the excerpts above, Neville writes with the assurance and apparent ease of a seasoned professional. Dialogue, exposition, action scenes: no difference. He switches effortlessly from one to another.
But you know what? You have to work to notice that much. You may set out with a critical eye, thinking you'll catch him – however smoothly – in the act of wielding his tools. I predict, though, that you'll repeatedly find yourself another two or three chapters further along since taking your last checkpoint. And you will have utterly forgotten any such mission within a few chapters of the shattering end.