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BOOK REVIEW: Stolen Souls

BOOK REVIEW: Stolen Souls

Monsters are ten-a-penny in crime novels, Neville writes humans and makes them so much worse

Updated: 22/09/2011

Stuart Neville returns to the bad, old streets of Belfast in his new book Stolen Souls. It is a blistering, uncompromising look into an even seamier underbelly than Neville's previous literary excursions, stirring in themes of sexual coercion and religious mania to the already bubbling Neville stock of gangsters and violence.

Although the novel features the return of the seedy, more-or-less ethical DI Jack Lennon, it opens with the fractured, disjointed narration of Galya.

A young Russian girl trafficked to Belfast – lured with promises of being a nanny to a wealthy Russian family's children – Galya is locked in a small room. She has blood on her hands, a dead man at her feet and, if the men at the door have their way, only a short time to live.

Her only hope is the kind man, who had given her a cross and a phone number to call if she ever got away. To reach him, Galya has to run.

The body she leaves behind her becomes Lennon's problem. Less than pleased to be called out in the middle of the night, after the events in Collusion he is now a single father to a once-abandoned, now-traumatised child, he nevertheless recognises the dead man.

Tommy Strazdas, a Hungarian with a violent temper and very dangerous, drug-fuelled family.

It is a race now, between the wearily moral Lennon, Strazdas' vengeful associates and the fleet, desperate Galya. All of them, one way or another, looking for the kind man. The only question is, what will he do when they reach him?

Although Stolen Souls is a complete novel in itself, an accessible stand-alone story for new- readers, fans of Neville's writing will be delighted to find mention of familiar places and people in the novel. A breadcrumb trail of past offences and current consequences is scattered throughout the narrative.

Lennon is under insidious pressure from DCI Dan Hewitt, his old boss who he knows is crooked as a donkey's hind-leg, and his daughter suffers violent night terrors that she refuses to talk about. And, in a series where even the heroes are grubby-souled at best, Galya suffers consequences out of proportion to her hopeful error of trusting a handsome man to help her.

Even the villains are shown to be the end consequence of mistreatment and violence. It is hard not to feel some liking for them as their childhood horrors and humanity are exposed under Neville's pen. Only to suffer the equivalent of sympathetic whiplash, as he dissects their sins for censure.

In a genre populated by monsters, Neville writes humans who are so much worse.

That said, when he does turn his pen to crafting a monster he can still do a good job. The Traveller from Collusion was grotesque enough a creation, but somehow Laima Strazdiene is worse. The mother of the twisted Strazdas brothers, Tommy and his older brother Arturas, she is unseen but omnipresent throughout the plot.

For a character pieced together from a few phone calls and the scattered recollections of her son and employee, Laima casts a long shadow. Long enough it seems unlikely that this will be the last we see of her and her bloody rings.

Told in Neville's distinctive, clipped style Stolen Souls is a quick, engrossing read. It is clever, topical and in Galya Neville has created one of the more enjoyable female characters seen in hard-boiled literature lately. Although apparently cast as the victim, she is a perceptive and active participant in the story - possessed of both agency and wit. 

Perhaps, like Laima, we'll see her again.

Stolen Souls ends with the stage set for new enemies and old to return to haunt DI Lennon and his fragile, new family. He is a man too good at making enemies.

Stuart Neville will be talking about Stolen Souls and other books at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide for more events during the festival.

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