Markethill master of the crime thriller Stuart Neville delivers another gruesome page-turner, writes Joanne Savage

The follow-up to The Twelve, Stuart Neville’s brilliantly received novel about an IRA killer haunted by the ghosts of his victims, Collusion similarly broods over the violent legacy of the Troubles. Here, Neville sets his string of gruesome murders and twists against a web of double-dealing and post-Troubles corruption, paramilitary racketeering, prostitution rings, turf wars, bigotry and moral vacuity.

The cops turn blind eyes to the crimes of touting overlords of both orange and green persuasions. Meanwhile loyalists collude with republicans, the warp and criminality played out with equal fervour on both sides of the fence. The truth is slippery, none of the characters can afford to trust anyone else, and all the trauma of violence - the guilt, the feuds and memories of murdered relatives - means sleep is scarce and nerves are frayed.

An awful man named Bull O’Kane wants all those privy to a blood bath at an Armagh farm ‘done’ by a ruthless assassin named The Traveller. Top of the list is the IRA wild man Gerry Fegan, the only paramilitary to strike fear into the stony heart of O’Kane. Into the thick of it comes Detective Inspector Jack Lennon, one of the few characters in this gloomily corrupt world who operates with any kind of moral compass. His ex-partner and daughter were somehow on the margins of O’Kane’s feud and are now missing. Lennon fears they too will be on the hit list.

As the body count rises - The Traveller coldly firing rounds or smashing heads into bathroom mirrors as the situation demands - Lennon is ever more exasperated as his superiors deny his theories of the truth any validity. Collusion reaches up to the highest levels of the police force, the cops striking deals with loyalists and republicans who keep their areas under a kind of mafia-control. Whatever keeps the wheels of this screwed-up society turning will do, it seems, even if ruthless killers are now in government or striking shady deals with MI5.

Neville’s pacy prose style isn’t quite as telegraphically-slick as James Ellroy’s, but it’s getting there. He masterfully unravels a complex page-turner of a plot in pared-down language, embedding the action in all of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict psychological hangovers. This has to be top of the ex-paramilitary’s reading list – whether loyalist or republican - an opportunity to relive the twisted combat anxieties of yesteryear, with macho energy, tough lads and guns aplenty.

Neville is a writer with the skill to mould such anxieties into the fabric of an addictively debauched plot. The thrills come thick and fast, the violence is hair-raising and the twists and turns of the storyline are smart, bold, often graphically gruesome and always surprising.

At the centre of Collusion is The Traveller, a psycho akin to Javier Bardem’s coin-tossing hit man Anton in No Country for Old Men. His movements are deliberate, planned with chilling precision, brute strength and malignant creativity. His absence of conscience disturbs and powers the dark plot forward.

As the ‘good guy’, Detective Lennon struggles to save his daughter and ex-partner while fighting the lies and profiting ex-paramilitaries laughing all the way to the nearest brothel or drugs cache (festooned with union flags or tricolours as the case may be).

The violence climaxes at Bull O’Kane’s, many murders later. The indomitable Gerry Fegan collides with The Traveller in a rather over-long death duel - a bloody fire-and-gunshot extravaganza. The genre demands such brutality and Neville doesn’t disappoint. If he stretches the gore out just a tad longer than your gag reflex can manage, that’s part of the game.

If you want reflection or elaboration of the motives and conclusions, detailed character development full of sensitivity and ambiguity, you’ve come to the wrong place. Neville deals in the cut and thrust of action, in faces meeting the barrel of a gun or knives being pulled out to settle arguments in greasy spoons down the Shankill. At the moment, nobody does Northern Irish post-Troubles crime thriller writing better. It’s a niche genre and Neville has made it his own.

One small gripe though: this book is terribly chauvinistic. Not one strong or compelling female character emerges from the testosterone-charged pages. From the 'rough as biscuits' woman Lennon picks up in a bar, to the smiley prostitute in a loyalist brothel, Bull O’Kane’s big-boned compliant daughter and the whiny, unreasonable Marie McKenna: womankind is portrayed as little more than a distraction to the male-centred action.

It’s still a man’s world, but, then again, perhaps where meat-headed ex-paras fighting over their pride and ancient betrayals are concerned, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Collusion is published by Harvill Secker, and is available to purchase from the CultureNorthernIreland Amazon shop.