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Interview: Declan Burke
“I’ll hazard a guess at some pop psychology and say that a lot of crime writers write about violence because they fear violence,” says author Stuart Neville.
“The reason most crime writers are such mild-mannered people is because they’re not confrontational, they tend not go out to the pub on a Saturday night and get into a fight. You write about what scares you, I think.”
According to his own theory, then, Stuart Neville is particularly terrified about paramilitary violence in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. His debut novel, ‘The Twelve’, won the LA Times’ award for best crime novel in 2009 for its depiction of a former paramilitary killer atoning for his sins in a spectacularly bloody fashion.
“The book actually sprang out of a dream I woke up from one morning,” says Neville, “but what fuelled me throughout writing the book was that feeling of frustration that I think a lot of people felt in Northern Ireland around the time I was writing it, in or around 2007, when Stormont finally got up and running again. There was that feeling of, y’know, it’s great we’ve got peace, but where’s the justice?”
His second novel, ‘Collusion’, followed a similar theme, investigating the tortured politics at the heart of the Peace Process, and harking back to the dark days of the Troubles.
When he sat down to write his third novel, however, the recently released ‘Stolen Souls’, Neville was aware he could well be painting himself into a corner. “Well, ‘Collusion’ is probably the most political of the three books,” he says, “and ‘Stolen Souls’ is very much a reaction against that, a move away from that. Because there is the danger that you could get bogged down in the Troubles, and post-Troubles politics, and all the rest of it. And it’s true, with my commercial head on for a moment, that the Troubles aren’t the most commercial topic in fiction these days (laughs). So if I want to be purely mercenary about it, then it’s a good idea to move away from the politics.”
Neville is in the vanguard of a number of authors who are engaged in writing about the newly transformed Northern Ireland, a cohort that includes Colin Bateman, Adrian McKinty, Eoin McNamee and Gerard Brennan.
“I know other writers are working in different directions on this,” he concedes. “I’ve just finished reading Adrian McKinty’s new book, ‘The Cold, Cold Ground’, in which he dives headlong into the thick of the Troubles and the hunger strikes, which is admirable, I think. I do think the Troubles will be quite fertile ground for writers the further we move away from them, and the freer we are to write about them with a more dispassionate gaze.”
While one kind of politics takes a back seat in ‘Stolen Souls’, Neville does engage with sexual politics. The story reprises Detective Jack Lennon from ‘Collusion’, who is investigating the murder of a Lithuanian man. By the time Lennon arrives on the scene, the reader already knows that the culprit is a Ukrainian woman called Galya, who has made a desperate bid to escape the misery of her life as a forced prostitute in Belfast.
“One decision I made with ‘Stolen Souls’ was I didn’t want Galya to be a victim,” says Neville. “Something that bothers me a lot about contemporary crime fiction is how much of it is based around violence against women, and sexual violence in particular. Maybe I’m being a bit holier-than-thou on this, but I think too much crime fiction dwells on and relishes that.”
Neville abhors the growing trend for ‘torture-porn’ that characterises a certain strain of crime fiction, but he also rejects the notion that a woman’s role in the genre is to play the damsel in distress. “It would have been very easy for Galya to be passive,” he says, “and for Jack Lennon to swoop in and save her, all that manly stuff. But for me, it was very important that if Galya was going to get out of her fix, it was going to be as a result of her own efforts, not by waiting for a bloke to come along.
“I take issue with a particularly successful book of recent years,” he continues, “which is Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’, which people have built up as a feminist take on the crime novel. For me, I’ve not been able to get away from feeling that it’s deeply misogynistic in its nature. To an extent, ‘Stolen Souls’ is a reaction to that book.”
Alongside Galya, Jack Lennon is the other main character in ‘Stolen Souls’. A complex man, he finds himself implicated in his own investigation as he explores the sordid world of sex-trafficked women.
“Lennon isn’t the most sympathetic cop that was ever put on a page,” Neville laughs. “He’s certainly not a white knight, and he’s not very heroic. He almost begrudgingly gets involved in cases. But he has been a largely selfish and immature man up to this point, and Ellen, his daughter, exists as an imperative for him to grow up. My hope is that, as the series goes on, that taking responsibility for his daughter gives him a journey to go on. I want her to be Lennon’s conscience.”
Neville became a father himself earlier this year, and concedes that having a baby girl in the house might well change his writing style.
“Going back to Ellen again,” he says, “there are scenes in the first two books in which she is in peril, and I think becoming the father of a little girl might make me think twice about writing those kind of scenes again. Simply because it cuts too close. If the story calls for it, I don’t know what I’ll actually do, but it would certainly give me pause for thought. It’s certainly changed how I’ve absorbed stories. I watched a documentary last week about babies being taken from their parents and sold, in Spain, with the parents being told their baby had died. I found it much more gruelling simply because I’m a father now. So it undeniably changes your attitude and your outlook on things.”
That said, Neville argues that his books are in reality far less violent than their given credit for.
“What I find most interesting to write about is not the actual violence in itself,” he says, “it’s more the anticipation of it and its consequences. I remember reading in Derry not so long ago, I read from ‘Collusion’, and afterwards a little old lady came up to say, ‘That was a terribly violent scene!’ And I had to point out to her that there’s only one sentence in the whole passage that actually describes an act of violence. Everything else was the threat of it, the impending menace. And that to me is a lot more interesting. The build-up to the knife going in is far more interesting than the knife actually going in.”
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