We all have a list of authors whose books we wait for like the drunk outside a liquor store first thing in the morning. When they have the temerity to (gasp) leave beloved characters behind & start a new series, it can be tricky. It's like your brother showing up with a new girlfriend when you really liked the old one. Dynamics are shaken up, expectations are altered & you're out of your comfort zone.
But hey, this is the latest from Stuart Neville.....an author who has given me hours of enjoyment with his gritty tales from the streets of Belfast. When offered the chance to read a proof, I snatched it with both paws & ran.
In 2007, Serena Flanagan was a young DS working the case of a kid who killed his foster father. Ciaran Devine was just 12 years old when he confessed to stabbing the man who took in him & older brother Thomas. Serena forged a bond with him during the investigation & she's always had doubts as to which brother was actually responsible. Now 20, Ciaran is released to a halfway house. When parole officer Paula Cunningham witnesses the brothers' reunion, something about their relationship sets off alarm bells & she contacts Serena for advice.
And you soon understand why. In chapters that flash back to the original crime & those told from Ciaran's POV, the brothers' story unfolds. It's poignant & disturbing. Countless disappointments & betrayals by those who should have cared shaped the boys into a single entity, each unable to function without the other. Their experiences read like the checklist from a manual entitled "How to Create a Sociopath".
Thomas kept his nose clean while waiting for his brother. But with Ciaran's release comes a spate of violence, threats & murder. Serena is drawn back into their lives when someone from the original case is killed, unaware of the effect she triggers in their relationship.
This is more of a character driven story than the author's previous novels. Setting takes a back seat as the reader navigates the emotions, desires & agendas of those involved. We spend a lot of time in their heads as chapters are told in alternating points of view. Various crimes & investigations are ongoing but it's the personal lives of these people that forms the bones of the book.
It's difficult to rate because on one hand, you have a compelling story of the short, unfortunate lives of 2 young men. On the other, you have a supposedly seasoned cop who charges through her day making rookie mistakes & leaving pissed off colleagues in her wake. Her go-to strategy for dealing with people seems to be as a confrontational bully. This where the novel fell apart for me. She becomes the latest in a long line of female detectives portrayed as ruled by emotion & determined to prove they have a bigger pair. With the addition of a troubled home life, the old trope is complete. I get that placing a character in a string of dangerous situations (by her own design) is an effective plot device but it left me wondering if she's as smart as we're told.
Some things haven't changed in terms of Neville's style. The crisp writing, characters who are fully realized from the opening pages, atmospheric settings & expert pacing. With a large cast it's ok if one of the peripheral characters sets your teeth on edge. When it's the MC, that's a problem. But it's my problem, not his.
With a less talented writer, I'd be tempted to say thanks for the memories & move on. But it's a testament to his ability that I'll pick up the next one in spite of a MC I can't fully buy into. That's how much I enjoy his prose.
So, as with my brother's new girlfriend, I'm willing to put in some effort to get comfortable with DCI Flanagan. Maybe when we get to know each other better, we'll reach an understanding & begin a beautiful friendship.
BTW, I'd like to applaud the cover art. I'm often influenced by the appearance of a book's cover (+ or -). Either way I like to see a connection between what's outside & what's inside. This picture is not only beautiful but very symbolic of the boys & a significant location in the story. Well done!