The victim is the latest in a line of murdered foreigners, all with links to Nazi Germany, who had been given refuge by the State after the end of World War II. They are cohorts of the ex-Nazi Otto Skorzeny, “once called the most dangerous man in Europe. Now a gentleman farmer”.
Skorzeny was a real person. Neville builds his plot around the Nazi’s exile in Ireland, and a fictional manhunt for him, which gives the writer licence to explore a sordid chapter in 20th century Irish history.
“There were two things that shocked me,” says Neville. “The first was the number of Nazis that came into the country as collaborators, Breton nationalists, Flemish nationalists, and so on, and a small number of German Nazis, but there was quite a number of them.
“The second thing that shocked me was the complicity of the State. In the case of Peter Menten, for example: when he came to Ireland, he was advised by the Department of Justice to adopt a new name. It wasn’t a government-wide policy, but the Department of Justice was historically notoriously anti-Semitic. It caused a great deal of embarrassment for the Department of Foreign Affairs. They were getting it in the ear from the Americans: ‘Why is this happening’? The Department of Foreign Affairs was then going to the justice department: ‘Why are you letting these guys in’? ‘Because we feel like it’. There was a lot of push-and-pull in the government about it.
“A lot of it was also driven by something that is almost forgotten now — there was a tremendous fear of communism in Ireland in the 1960s. When I was researching, I went back to copies of newspapers of the period and I remember seeing these hysterical headlines about Italian communists who were infiltrating the Italian parliament — that communists were getting a foothold in Europe — and the sky was going to fall in; that was largely driven by the Catholic Church, because communism was seen as anti-religion.”
The hunt for Skorzeny keeps the pages turning at a clip. He’s orbited by a number of extremist groups, including Breton separatists, Mossad and booty hunters, because he’s in control of the ‘ratlines’ of the title, the name for the tunnels former Nazis, such as Martin Bormann, used to spirit “assets liberated from the Jews” out of Germany after the war. Skorzeny is an elite commando, renowned for his daring, who, in Ratlines, brazenly sports a Nazi eagle on his cigarette case, while billeted in Martinstown House in Co Kildare.
“He’s very well-known amongst military historians, as one of those super-villains of the time,” says Neville. “He’s revered by World War II buffs, even though he didn’t earn the reputation that he had. He lived in Ireland from 1959 to 1969. You couldn’t make him up. He was six foot five, built like a brick shithouse, and had this huge scar down the side of his face. He was actually called Otto ‘Scarface’ Skorzeny. He was a gift of a character, but I discovered the reason he was too good to be true was because he was too good to be true. He had manufactured his own legend around himself.”
As charlatans go, he met his match in the sitting Minister for Justice, Charles J Haughey, whom Neville brings vividly to life. Haughey is indirectly in charge of the agent, Albert Ryan, who is tasked with protecting Skorzeny. He is as you would imagine: surrounded by apparatchiks, expensively tailored, full of devilish wit, with “a lizard smile” and every second word out of his mouth a curse, which appalls the aristocratic Skorzeny.
“With Haughey, there was the danger of slipping into caricature,” says Neville. “He hasn’t been represented much in fiction, but I know people will start to explore him more. I know there’s an RTÉ programme in development about him.”
The Haughey character has a turbulent relationship with the ex-commando, Ryan, who is upright, “with a flint at his centre”. Ryan lacks the self-assuredness of most pulp fiction detectives. He doubts himself, especially in amorous affairs. His relationship with Celia Hume, a beautiful, feisty third secretary is carried on around the bars and hostelries of Dublin. Neville authentically captures the city and the times.
“I wouldn’t write a novel set in contemporary Dublin, simply because I don’t know it well enough,” he says. “With a novel set 50 years in the past, as the saying goes, ‘the past is a foreign country’. You can kind of get there by research. As well as reading, I was very lucky to have some friends, one of whom was Ruth Dudley Edwards, who knew Dublin and the political players of the time.
“When you’re researching history, it’s not facts and figures and dates, it’s how things feel, and attitudes, that really matter, about the mechanics of things, how people thought. Silly things: in an early draft, I had described the character Celia as wearing an off-the-shoulder dress and it was pointed out to me that she might as well have been walking around topless. A young woman wouldn’t have dressed like that — it would have been indecent.
“Or, in the very opening scene in the book, a character ruminates on the dirty weekend he had in a place like Salthill and it was pointed out to me that you’d have had to work very, very hard to get a dirty weekend anywhere at that time.”
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