“Look, collusion worked all ways, all directions…Loyalists supplying Republicans with fake DVDs and Ecstasy tablets. Republicans wholesaling laundered diesel and bootleg vodka to Loyalists…And the killings. How many of our own did we set up for the Loyalists to take out? How many of their own did the Loyalists set up for us?”
Set in Belfast and focusing on the long-term hatreds between Catholics and Protestants, and among governmental agencies in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, this complex and violent noir mystery shows all the hatreds and rivalries involving many departments of the police, the British Army, the SAS (Special Air Service), MI5 (one of the UK’s Military Intelligence services), the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group) , the UDA (the Ulster Defense Association, another Loyalist force), and various Catholic paramilitary forces.
Jack Lennon, a Catholic who has joined the RUC (the Royal Ulster Constabulary) in order to try to form a bridge among the various law enforcement factions in the city, had been on the Major Investigation Team, until he tried to fix a speeding ticket for a man to whom he owed favors and was busted. Lennon, a loner, has tried to stay on the straight and narrow in an environment in which everyone has an angle and is willing to bend the rules to accomplish his own ends. He has no family on which to depend–they abandoned him fifteen years ago when he joined the RUC, and he is now able to see his mother only because she is so debilitated by senility that she does not remember who he is.
The novel opens with a vividly described assassination, in which the action is told from the point of view of three shady Loyalist victims as they realize they are about to die at the hands of people they do not know but who seem to be part of the police. Other assassinations are recalled involving other victims, the killers still not identified or apprehended. Two sadistic assassins are hired to deal with the crimes, soon find themselves stalking each other, even as many different agencies are stalking them. At the heart of the novel is Marie McKenna, a criminal capo’s daughter who is also the mother of his child, Ellen.
Rave reviews have accompanied the release of this dark novel of criminal worlds colliding with sectarian hatreds. A sequel to Stuart Neville’s debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, featuring many of the same characters, Collusion continues their stories and further develops the characters while expanding the action from the first novel. As someone who has not read the first novel, however, I found it nearly impossible to keep track of who the characters were, what their history and motivations were, and what, exactly, was behind all the violence which unfolded on almost every page. Though I kept notes as characters were introduced and began to interact, the author did not help new readers to any great extent by providing and explaining background. It was not until the halfway point that I began to appreciate how all these characters were connected and to begin to empathize with some of them, including, ironically, one of the assassins.
Though the novel is firmly focused on nonstop action, much of it grim and gruesome, the author is also a fine writer of description, with an ear for dialogue that makes his characters come alive, even when the reader is not quite sure why they are behaving as they do. The large cast of characters allows the author to explore many different facets of influence in Belfast, showing the compromises the police make to maintain the peace, the ability of the criminal underworld to make their own rules, and the difficulties of those, like Jack Lennon, who try to navigate the no-man’s land between and among the powerful, often criminal, brokers of influence in the city. As Lennon says to one of his opponents, “The collusion, it goes all ways, all directions. All the likes of you ever cared about was lining your own pockets. You didn’t give a shit about any cause, did you? Just so long as you were making money.”
Photos: The author’s photo appears on his Amazon Author page.
The photo of a cell in Maghaberry Prison, the site of several scenes in this novel, is from www.independent.ie.