A dark and troubled mind

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Photo: Gabriella DiTano

Stuart Neville, author of critically acclaimed new crime novel The Twelve, talks to James Maxwell

“I just woke up one morning with the image of a man, sitting in a bar, surrounded by all the people that he had killed,” Stuart Neville responds when I ask what inspired him to write The Twelve, his critically acclaimed debut novel.

“I tend to get ideas like that, they tend to be still images,” he adds. This, surely, is neither normal nor healthy. But given the context of the story that those images evolved into — present-day Belfast, still painfully straining to divorce itself from four decades of sectarian violence — it isn’t entirely surprising either.

The Twelve charts the journey of Gerry Fegan — a psychotic, whiskey-soaked, ex-IRA assassin — as, one by one, he tracks down his former Republican employers and exacts revenge on them at the behest of the ghosts of the dozen innocent civilians he was ordered to murder during the Troubles.

Fegan confronts old friends, menacingly corrupt public figures, cowardly priests, and rural thugs in a bloody quest for redemption, all the while tipping the delicate equilibrium of Northern Irish politics closer to the point of collapse.

He appears to me like an uncounted refugee of Ireland’s civil war — a natural born killer drifting pointlessly in peacetime among the spent cartridges, discarded ammo dumps, and derelict houses of a country still trying to come to terms with its destructive history.

Neville, however, is keen to stress that the dark world of post-conflict republicanism constitutes the backdrop, rather than the focus, of his book.

“It’s just a setting really. It’s about the character himself. You could take the story and transplant it to the mafia in New York if you wanted to. The story is about Fegan’s own struggle with what he has done — the political environment is really secondary to that.”

“And from a commercial point of view,” he continues, “I could have made it easier for myself by setting it in a London gangland or something. So politics is an offshoot of the story, rather than its root.”

I read The Twelve as offering a pretty emphatic condemnation of all the major players in the nationalist movement, from the dissidents who are still armed and active to members of the Stormont assembly currently working the levers of power.

“Simply by virtue of being set in Northern Ireland it’s going to be political, because everything about the place is political — from education to music, there’s politics behind everything — but politics is not the spine of it.”

“What really interests me is the difference between the surface appearance of prosperity and wealth (and its opposite). You could stand in the middle of Belfast, where you have all your high street stores, but you walk a mile and a half in any direction and you’ll come to some pretty impoverished areas.”

Fegan is appalled by a similar hypocrisy; that of his ex-comrades’ claims to have reconciled themselves with the peace process in spite of their apparently unshakable addiction to violence. Neville echoes his character’s frustration: “There is a very strong nod and wink culture in Northern Ireland. There is a tendency to just gloss over things or ignore things. No one wants to face up to their very suspect histories, and not just Republicans but a lot of Unionists too. Everyone knows ‘it’s’ there but nobody wants to talk about ‘it’. A lot of people have been involved with some really dodgy things.”

Is this not a rather cynical attitude to take? The Northern Ireland that Fegan stalked as a hit-man in his youth is surely not the same one that exists today?

“I have been accused of being overly cynical, but the reality of Northern Ireland is that it is very hard to pick out good guys and bad guys — there are really just degrees of bad. There’s nobody who can claim the moral high ground.”

Indeed, Neville illustrates this brilliantly in The Twelve. Fegan himself is a grotesque and ruthless figure, responsible for countless broken bones, split lips, and emptied chambers (not to mention, of course, dropped bodies). Yet you recognise as a reader the validity of what motivates him. To some extent, you even come to accept that he has a right to do what he does.

Plunging readers into the same moral no-mans-land as a murderous protagonist is no easy trick, but Neville performs it well. He attributes his fascination with the idea of ethical ambiguity to his principal influence — master of the moral gray area — James Ellroy.

“[Ellroy’s] American Tabloid was a novel that was particularly influential in exploring that ambiguity. He can write about really, really despicable people and he doesn’t judge them, he just lets them get on with how they are behaving. I mean they can be racist, misogynist, homophobic — I mean really horrible people — but, because he just lets them behave as they will in their world, you can’t help but be on their side.”

Despite his borderline sadism, predatory instincts and near-chronic inability to stop killing people, I found myself, toward the end of The Twelve, almost coming to admire Fegan — I couldn’t help but be on his side. I suspect that for Neville that is the highest compliment that he could possibly be paid.

The Twelve is out now, published by Harvill Secker, RRP £12.99.