Crime writer finds inspiration in the Troubles, but won't be bound by it
There’s no place like home – especially, it seems, if you’re a crime writer. Where Ian Rankin has Edinburgh and James Ellroy the deep South, Markethill crime sensation Stuart Neville has set his debut novel in the mean streets of Belfast. Not that he always envisaged it being that way.
'In all my years of writing I'd never wanted to write anything about Northern Ireland. In fact I'd always avoided it like the plague,’ the writer says over coffee in Belfast’s Bookfinders Café. But then a short story about a former paramilitary in a Boston bar came to him one morning and the seeds of what became The Twelve were planted.
The Twelve is set in contemporary Belfast, with the central character Gerry Fegan, a former Republican hitman lost in the new, post-conflict Northern Ireland. Fegan is literally haunted by his violent past - twelve ghosts stalk his waking hours, driving him to look for vengeance. His ire is directed primarily at the peace process and David Campbell, a double agent with previous links to Fegan.
Fegan's demons seem to mirror our own uncomfortable past, not that Neville set out to deliver any state of the nation analysis. What Neville he has done is turn his distaste for the Troubles into a fast-paced and genuinely thrilling read that is a world away from stodgy, sensationalist ‘Troubles fiction’.
Unlike Hollywood IRA blockbusters of yesteryear, Neville’s Belfast is not a world of comedy Norn Iron accents and ridiculous plots to blow up everything in sight. It is a real place, with believable characters struggling with a difficult past, and present.
'I think the next 10 years are going to be a very interesting time,' Neville says reflecting on post-Troubles writing. 'You have to remember that great fiction never emerges until a conflict is over. Look at World War II. While that was going on the only things coming out were propaganda films but in the years after it inspired so much. Part of the reason is that after the fact you don't need to be so politically sensitive.'
Not that Neville has ever been particularly keen on writing from Northern Ireland. 'I've even been a bit reluctant to read anything from the north. It can be very serious.'
Luckily for Neville, Nat Sobel didn’t share his aversion to Northern Irish writing. The literary agent to stars like James Ellroy, Richard Russo and FX Toole stumbled across one of the writer’s short stories on the internet site Thuglist.com and was so intrigued he wanted to read more.
'So I sent him off a copy of the novel I was working on, fully expecting him to say 'Thanks, but no thanks.' But instead he said he wanted to work with me ' Neville says of his remarkable break.
With a top notch agent and a two-book deal with Harvill Secker under his belt the future looks bright for Stuart Neville. Like many crime writers before him, he has found inspiration close to home but he is adamant that he will not be bound by Northern Ireland and the Troubles.
'I'm sure I could write about places other than Belfast, and not doubt in the future I will.'
The Twelve is out now, published by Harvill Secker.
Stuart Neville reads with Brian McGilloway at 5.30 pm on Thurs July 30 at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh as part of the John Hewitt Summer School.
For more information visit the festival website www.johnhewittsociety.org.