Friday, January 25, 2013

Stuart Neville Shackles Up Ratlines

At the end of World War II, not everyone received a warm welcome home. Irish who had enlisted in the British Army despite their country's neutrality during the war, were often subjected to discrimination or blacklisted outright. In the eyes of many Irish, they were renegades, deserters, or even traitors.

Lieutenant Albert Ryan, directorate of intelligence, understands it. He himself had enlisted and fought in the war. And he would have been shut out had the government not recruited him for the same reason other Irish were shunned. G2 needed men with active military experience.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville weaves conspiracy in with ethical and moral contradictions. 

Set in 1963, just months before a historic visit by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, several foreign nationalists have been murdered in Ireland. Ryan is assigned to the case, only to discover that they were former Nazis or Nazi sympathizers during the war and tied to Otto Skorzeny, the infamous Waffen-SS lieutenant colonel who rescued Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from being turned over to the Allies.

Neville bends fact and fiction, placing Skorzeny at the center of the ratlines, a system of escape routes that were created by Nazis and other fascists (ODESSA) fleeing to countries such as Ireland, Spain, and South American countries. Ryan, who had seen the atrocities of the Nazi party while serving in the British Army, takes an immediate dislike to the arrogant Austrian and his assignment.

As his investigation deepens, Ryan discovers that the men behind the murders are targeting Skorzeny to bring justice to the former Nazis and collaborators he assists. However, just as Ryan wavers on carrying out the orders of Justice Charles Haughey to save Ireland from international scorn and embarrassment, he learns that the men after Skorzeny are equally cruel, callous, and deadly dangerous.

The result places Ryan in the middle of a politically-charged game of murder, greed, and privateer espionage, with different interests — Nazis, Israeli Mossad, IRA, Breton separatists, SAS operatives — all converging in pursuit of their varied interests. As for Ryan, each of them sees the investigator as an ideal ally and a most expendable pawn.

To recruit him and achieve their goals, any one of them is willing employ deceit, coercion, threat, or force. And this makes Ryan's assignment very different than his initial orders. His has to stay alive.

Fact and fiction converge to make a convincing historical thriller. 

Neville walks a fine line with his characters, who range from one-dimensional dotes to fully fleshed out historical personas. There are as many standouts as there are unfortunates. But the best of them, the fictional protagonist Ryan and fictionalized antagonist Skorzeny, are a compelling contrast by any measure.

Ryan is an unassuming battle-hardened but beaten down Protestant who wants to be both loyal and noble in circumstances that only afford him to be one. As a result, it is his resolve to trudge through obstacles with his head down, relying on little more than perseverance and having nothing to lose.

Skorzeny is an elitist Nazi veteran who has managed to parlay his post-war position and wartime propaganda into a growing sphere of power that he openly flaunts. It's his aim to cooly control anyone within his vicinity and he is unafraid to employ any means to intimidate, control, and retain an upper hand.

While some suggest these characters are stereotypes, both are surprisingly accurate. Ryan is a composite of Irish men who faced hostility after returning home. And in every historic photograph of Skorzeny, he is always authoritative, arrogant, and composed (even in a cell at the Nuremburg trials).

Along with them, Neville portrays several other historical figures with arguable accuracy and is extremely careful in aligning the story with real events in Ireland. In fact, G2 did monitor Skorzeny when he bought a lavish 165-acre farm in Ireland in 1959. And he abruptly cut his visits in 1963.

Ratlines By Stuart Neville Crosses 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Not everything is perfect about Ratlines. Neville takes too long to make his case on occasion and tends to draw out action in slow motion, including several torturous and brutal scenes designed to make people second guess who is the lesser of two evils. And yet, where Ratlines wins is in tackling a painful legacy that burdened Ireland long after World War II, even if they covertly aided allies.

Ratlines by Stuart Neville is available from Amazon or you can order the book from Barnes & Noble. The book can be downloaded for iBooks and the audio version is on iTunes, narrated by Alan Smyth. Smyth portrays Ryan with a slight edge and Skorzeny near perfect.
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