#29 / Stuart Neville, The Twelve

Stuart Neville, The Twelve (London: Vintage, 2010). Hard-hitting Belfast noir that excavates the controversial past of The Troubles  4.5 stars

Opening line: Maybe if he had one more drink they’d leave him alone.

I read the first two chapters of The Twelve late one night at the Harrogate crime festival, and was immediately hooked. An extremely well-written blend of hard-hitting noir and ghost story, it tackles the controversial subject of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in a highly original and effective way.

The novel is set in 2007, around the time of the St. Andrew’s Agreement. Its central protagonist is Gerry Fegan, a former paramilitary hitman, who has been haunted nightly since his release from prison by the ghosts of the twelve people he murdered. When the ghosts demand that he exact eye-for-an-eye justice on their behalf, by executing various individuals complicit in their deaths, Gerry agrees, on the condition that they’ll leave him alone once he’s done. However, he also has to deal with the fallout of his actions in a fragile post-conflict Belfast.

Gerry’s ghosts consist of three British soldiers, two soldiers from the Ulster Defence Regiment, a Royal Ulster Constabulary policeman, two Ulster Freedom Fighter Loyalists, as well as four civilians – a shopkeeper, a teenager, and a woman and her baby. The way they haunt him (a trope with a rich pedigree in the work of Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Toni Morrison and Stephen King, amongst others), allows the author to examine the history and violence of The Troubles to devastating effect, and to explore larger themes of guilt, justice and responsibility in the post-conflict era. 

There is a particularly ingenious openness built into the ghostly figures and how we understand them as readers. We can either choose to accept that they’re a genuine supernatural happening, or alternatively, as Gerry’s psychologist argues, that they are a ‘manifestation’ of his guilt.

If we opt for the former interpretation, then the ghosts’ desire for vengeance can be seen as a response to the lack of justice in the wake of their deaths. The men who sanctioned their murders, some of whom are now respectable politicians with their eyes on power at Stormont, have evaded punishment. Even the little justice that was served has been sacrificed to facilitate an end to the conflict: murderers like Gerry were released from prison early and re-classified as ‘political prisoners’ following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. (This is a common conflict-resolution dilemma – to what extent can or should justice be sacrificed in the interests of achieving political stability?) 

If, on the other hand, we view the ghosts as the creation of Gerry’s fevered imagination, they can be seen as the embodiment of his guilt, but also as the means by which he sidesteps that guilt. Instead of fully accepting moral responsibility, he uses the ghosts to hold those who were above him in the chain of command accountable for his own crimes (the classic ‘I was following a superior’s orders’ defence).

So the ghosts point up the price paid for sacrificing justice as part of the peace settlement (the ghouls are a vicious ‘return of the repressed’), while also delivering a complex portrait of a perpetrator’s struggle to cope with his guilt. Very clever indeed.  

Alternate cover…

The key question for me throughout the narrative was how the author was going to square the circle of Gerry’s own guilt, given the latter’s ultra-violent past and present (he was and is a murderer, no matter how you spin the motivation for his actions). I’m not *quite* sure that the narrative’s moral logic was wholly sustained at the end (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers). But given the complexities of the subject-matter, I think the novel does an admirable job of maintaining a balanced point of view: barely anyone – be they Catholic, Protestant, Northern Irish, British or other – comes out of this story morally intact. Crucially, the narrative’s emotionally ‘cool’ tone ensures that readers are not tempted to empathise with Gerry in such a way as to excuse his crimes or moral failings.     

Given the assurance with which the narrative is written, it’s hard to believe that this was the author’s publishing debut. I haven’t been this impressed by a first novel since reading Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez.   

You can read the first two chapters of The Twelve here.

There are also a number of ‘deleted scenes’ from the novel available on Stuart Neville’s website, which are worth a read after you’ve finished the novel.

The Twelve (titled The Ghosts of Belfast in the US), is the first of a three-part series. The others are Collusion and Stolen Souls.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Twelve a hard-hitting and memorable 4.5 stars.

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16 thoughts on “#29 / Stuart Neville, The Twelve

  1. Fascinating to read your review as it seems to refer to a book so different from the one I read (which as far as I know is only different in title…I read it as The Ghosts Of Belfast). While I did find the social/political themes well done I was, overall, bored by this book…its violence felt gratuitous, its male characters stupidly stereotypical, its female characters almost absent. It is one of the things I love most about books…that no two people read the same one.

    • Thanks, Bernadette! Yes, I love that variety of readerly reactions too 🙂

      In this case, I was totally gripped from the word go, and was hugely admiring that an author could make the ghost device work so well in the context of a crime narrative. I thought it was a really audacious fusion of genres and one that many other writers would not have managed to bring off. The other thing I really admired was the use of the ghosts to tackle the legacy of The Troubles head on (I’m frankly in awe of anyone who dares go there). I felt I learned a lot in the course of reading the novel…

      It *is* very hard-hitting, male-dominated noir, so I can understand why it might not have been to your taste, though I don’t share your reservations about the characterisation. Gerry, in particular, I thought was brilliantly drawn.

      Did you review the novel on Reactions to Reading? Will pop over in the morning for a look!

  2. Pingback: Review of Stuart Neville, The Twelve | Blue House & Co Crime Novel Reviews | Scoop.it

  3. Mrs. P.: I thought it was a powerful book. I have read few thrillers which actually explores the mind of the lead character, no one could call Fegan a hero. I do not like books with ghosts who are active parties in the book. Here the spirits of the mind were compelling Fegan which is credible to me. As I reflected on the book I thought forgiveness was a word forgotten in The Troubles.

    • Thanks, Bill. ‘Powerful’ is a very good word to describe this novel; it stayed with me a good long while after I had finished reading it, largely due to the portrayal of Gerry. Choosing to tell the story from the perspective of a former IRA hitman was a pretty daring one – it could very easily not have worked, and I admire Neville’s willingness as an author to take that risk.

      You’re also right to point up the theme of forgiveness, which I didn’t really discuss in the review (partly for fear of revealing spoilers). It’s a very important theme within the novel, particularly towards the end, but is not unproblematic, particularly when viewed in relation to the dominant theme of securing justice for past crimes.

  4. Pingback: Review: The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

  5. Pingback: Mrs Peabody’s 2012 review | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  6. interesting interview with him on last nights Front Row. Discussion was not on this book, but one set in 1963 about Nazis hiding in Ireland, also interesting to hear how some of his titles have been changed, & the reasons why.

  7. Thanks, brianbird2012 – I saw that he’d been on via Twitter, and am about to have a listen now. The new book is called Ratlines and has just been published. Early reviews seem to be very positive and I’m looking forward to tucking into my own copy soon.

  8. Pingback: #30 / Stuart Neville, Ratlines | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  9. Well last night I was just going to read a couple more pages of The Twelve, and then….past midnight I had finished the book. I became absolutely gripped by it, brilliant pace at the end and great ending too. I think the writing was excellent, unshowy, so good that you did not notice the prose, if that makes sense (the complete opposite, for example, to the writing of Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code, which often had me falling about with laughter, and not in a good way..) Some brilliant characters, in particular Bull O’Kane , what a great baddie! I also developed a soft spot for Campbell which is a bit of a worry. In fact I need to look at the book again as there was a reference to something in his past that made him what he was??? I liked the slimy Northern Ireland Minister and was a bit disappointed he did not play a bigger part and was left a bit puzzled at whether the last scene he was in had any wider significance than just to show he was a sleazebag??? Anyway, you can tell I found this book very enjoyable and thought provoking. Now Mrs P, at the risk of sounding sucky uppy, I do have to say again how very good your review is of this book, just so skilful and it really added to my appreciation of the book. I am really in awe of your book reviewing skills, as whenever I try to describe a book I always end up saying it was really good and really interesting and had short chapters!! And you used “trope” ! Trope! Love it!

    • Thanks for taking the time report back on your view of the book, Blighty 🙂

      I absolutely agree about the very high standard of the writing – that was one of the first things that struck me when I started to read the novel. I think only a very good writer could pull off the device of the ghosts – it would be so easy for this to come across as cliched in the hands of a less skilled author.

      You touch on an interesting point – the reader’s feelings towards the various characters, who for the most part are clearly not angels. I thought that was another very fine line that Neville had to walk: the characters have to be depicted in such a way that we could relate to them or at least understand the roots of their actions, but not overly sympathetic in case the narrative looked apologist. Another really tough job for the author.

      In any case, I’m really glad that you enjoyed the novel and that you found it thought-provoking. And please don’t hestitate to say as many nice things as you like about the blog and its reviews 😉

      ‘Trope’ is a great word, isn’t it?!

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