Following the shooting dead of a friend in his home during the height of the Troubles, the poet Michael Longley said
…when somebody walks into a home where there is a smell of cooking and where BBC Radio is playing music and takes out a gun…they are offending the gods really…they are desecrating civilisation. They are disrupting far more than they probably thought about.
Gerry Fegan, the main protagonist of The Twelve (aka The Ghosts of Belfast) is learning this to his cost. Fegan, an IRA hit man has been released as part of the Good Friday Agreement and is trying to come to terms with life on the outside. His issues aren’t the usual ones that face newly released prisoners, for Gerry is now plagued by the ghosts of the twelve people he has killed.
If he was lucky, and drunk enough, he might pass out before their screaming got too loud to bear. That was the only time they made a sound, when he was alone and on the edge of sleep. When the baby started crying, that was the worst of it.
Drink isn’t allowing him to escape the constant screaming he hears in his head or the twelve who follow him everywhere but he discovers what he thinks may be a way out. Kill those who ordered the deaths of the twelve to avenge them and bring him peace.
Except the notion of peace isn’t quite so clear cut in The Ghosts of Belfast. This is 2007, a matter of months after the election of a Northern Ireland Assembly and the city, like Gerry Fegan, is getting used to its new status. The peace process is fragile and Gerry’s bosses are now in positions of power – teeth whitened, money in the bank and seats in government – and they don’t want anything to upset the lucrative new order.
If crime fiction is the best way of examining a changing society, then Neville has picked fertile ground in which to set this taut, hard-boiled thriller. This Belfast is entirely in flux, flooded with new money and new priorities but inhabited by the same people. Neville is very good at exploring the dichotomy between a time where criminals were seen as freedom fighters, to post-Agreement where they are trying to carve out a new place within a new framework. Some are embracing this new situation, some are resisting, but no one – not the party leaderships, the Police or the British Government are about to let the precarious peace be pulled apart by a lone gunman turning on his former bosses as a means of penance.
That Neville can make his hero (and one of the only likeable characters in the book) a cold blooded killer who has carried out atrocities on a grand scale is testament to his clever characterisation. Both Fegan and his nemesis, the government agent Davy Campbell, are not entirely sympathetic characters, but neither are they entirely execrable. Fegan, unlike his opportunistic cronies, has come to terms with who he is and what he has done and he is not a player in this brand new shiny game. He knows he is doomed, he isn’t look for absolution, he is just looking for some inner peace. It is unfortunate that the only way he can find to do that is through further violence, by killing those who ordered his crimes, but he sees no other alternative.
Whether or not the ‘twelve’ that Fegan sees are actual ghosts, impending madness or manifestations of his guilt is never explained. Nor does it need to be. It is a chilling narrative hook that serves the story well. The contrast between the Belfast of the past and the city of today is also incredibly well done, reminding us that this is a man who went to jail with the world looking one way and now can’t recognize what he has returned to.
They think the city belongs to them now, Fegan thought. If the peace process meant they could buy overpriced coffee without fear, then perhaps they were right. A young woman in a business suit crossed in front of the jaguar’s bonnet, a mobile phone pressed to her ear. Fegan wondered if she was even born when they scraped the body parts off the streets with shovels.
Neville doesn’t let us forget the past though and Fegan’s memories of the atrocities he has carried out are vivid, compelling and often hard to read. As the book hurtles towards its bloody climax in a farm on the outskirts of Armagh, we are reminded that the past still has an influence and that violence and sectarian hatred still linger.
The character of Fegan perfectly encapsulates that which must be felt by many prisoners on their release for a long jail term.; only for him it is magnified. He can’t recognise his community, his friends or even himself. What is even harder for Fegan is the realisation that he no longer believes in the cause he was fighting for and that he was merely a puppet for more powerful people and their often selfish goals.
– You used people like me. You told us we didn’t have a future. You said we had to fight for it. You put the guns in our hands and sent us off to do your killing for you….To make a name for yourself. They died to make your name.
– It was you Gerry. You killed them. Nobody else.
Fegan brought his bloodied hands to his temples, the Walther cold against his scalp.
– I know.
The Twelve may read initially like a standard revenge thriller, but it is also an exploration of the corrupt underbelly of Northern Ireland politics and the price we have had to pay for an uneasy peace. Neville uses this political reality to give depth and detail to what could have simply been a genre piece and has produced a tight, taut gem of a book.
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