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Monday, February 4, 2013

Ratlines by Stuart Neville (hardcover, $26.95)

This is Irish author Stuart Neville's first release after completing his lauded Belfast trilogy ("The Ghosts of Belfast," "Collusion," "Stolen Souls"). This time the setting is 1963 Ireland, just before President Kennedy's historic visit. The visit is merely a reference point; Kennedy doesn't make an appearance, nor is his visit part of the story. Neville captures the complicated political and social structure of the time, and the unsettled lines of authority. Neville's signature scenes of graphic violence and noirish essence are present in full force.

Lt. Albert Ryan is a "G2 fella," the Irish equivalent of an FBI/CIA agent. Against his personal wishes, he is assigned to protect an escaped Austrian Nazi, SS Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. Several other Nazis and sympathizers escaped to Ireland after "The Emergency," a rather quaint sobriquet for World War II. The enemies of my enemy are my friends appears to be the operating dictum, since Ireland's great foe, England, was an Axis enemy. Thus, many unsavory characters have come to roost near Dublin.

Ryan is unusual in that he ran away from home to join the British Army during World War II. Although his homecoming was almost as unsettling as his war experience, he found a place for himself back in a regimented setting with military intelligence. The irony doesn't escape Ryan that Ireland would rather harbor Nazis than an Irishman who fought with the British.

As morally repugnant as his assignment is, Ryan does his best to find out who has murdered three war fugitives and who is threatening Skorzeny. In the process, we see the fine lines the various political and intelligence organizations must tread, and the crosses and double-crosses that ensue.

Real-life characters appear in "Ratlines," including former prime minister Charles Haughey, Ryan's ostensible boss for this case. And, it turns out, Skorzeny and a Breton nationalist who has a prominent part in the book, Célestin Lainé, are real people. Neville produces extraordinary scenes in which they are the stars, including a bizarre fencing duel for Skorzeny and Lainé as a master of torture techniques.

"Ratlines" superbly and cleverly tells the story of a street-smart man who must find justice for those without voices, while playing various agencies against each other. Above all, he must survive being cast as a scapegoat and pawn.

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