Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review of Ratlines by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker, 2013)

It’s 1963 and Otto Skorzeny, the legendary leader of the German commando raid to liberate Mussolini from an Italian mountain top in the Second World War, is living in Ireland, using it as a base to coordinate a series of ratlines to aid his former Nazi colleagues escape to new lives.  About hundred or so ex-Nazis or their collaborators are thought to reside on the island and someone has started to pick them off, one-by-one, leaving messages for Skorzeny.  The German, however, is very well connected politically and he convinces Charles Haughey, the Justice Minister, to investigate the cases and protect him.  With President Kennedy about to arrive in the country, the last thing Haughey wants is Ireland’s sheltering of war criminals becoming public.  Haughey orders Lieutenant Albert Ryan of the Directorate of Intelligence to undertake the task.  Ryan is a former commando himself, having served with the British army.  He reluctantly takes the case, seeking to protect a man he has little empathy for and as the case unfolds he finds himself not only battling the forces ranged against Skorzeny but his own conscience and government.

The strengths of Ratlines are the characterisation, plot, contextualisation, and pacing and prose.  Neville revels in tales of conflicted, outsider characters placed in difficult circumstances.  The lead character in Ratlines is Albert Ryan, an Irishman, but also protestant who has served in the British army fighting the Germans, who has some sympathies with those administering justice to Nazis on the run.  He thoroughly dislikes his mission of protecting Skorzeny and the politics underpinning it, but he’s prepared to do his duty.  However, when all around are using you as a pawn with little regard for your well-being or justice, fulfilling that duty stretches resolve and loyalties, and Neville very nicely explores such tensions.  Moreover, by using real events and characters, such as Haughey and Skorzeny, and capturing some of the social constrictors of 1960s Ireland, Neville firmly embeds Ryan and the story in the political landscape of Ireland of the time.  The result is a thriller that is not simply framed as good versus evil, but is much more textured, nuanced and ambiguous.  The prose is tight and expressive, and the story rattles along at a fair clip.  Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable read. 


Sarah said...

Thanks for the review Rob. The book is sitting on my desk waiting to be read.

Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

I've only skimmed through your review Rob, since I hope to read it soon. I'm glad that you found it thoroughly enjoyable. As you know Skorzeny lived in Spain and counted with the help of Franco's regime

Rob Kitchin said...

Sarah, I think you'll enjoy it.

Jose, a bit of the novel covers Skorzeny in Spain. He makes a very brief appearance in my novel, The White Gallows, as well, which concerned the death of an elderly former Nazi who'd sought refuge in Ireland. Rob