It's 1963, and Ireland is gearing up for a visit from JFK. Of course, it doesn't want any dirty laundry to be aired during his visit. But there's one little problem. Someone has been killing German immigrants on Ireland's own doorstep.
Ireland sat out WWII. For that matter, so did the U.S. for a long time. Ireland's reasons were more personal and closer to home. Given recent history between the countries, it didn't want to get involved in any cause that England espoused. Nevertheless, many young Irishmen crossed the border into Northern Ireland and enlisted anyway. In Stuart Neville's novel, Lieutenant Albert Ryan is one such case. Even years later, he returns to his parents' home by night, afraid of bringing down the wrath of his countrymen on them. He doesn't always succeed in protecting them.
After the war, many affiliated in one way or another with the Nazis ended up in Ireland for a short or a long spell as a consequence of that country's decision in favor of neutrality. So the elaborate twisting tale that Neville sets up here is, while fiction, based more on reality than we might like to think. In the book,Ryan, who after the war has found it difficult to return to civilian life, ends up working for the Irish Directorate of Intelligence. In this capacity, he is ordered to protect one of the most famous of the Nazi sympathizers, Otto Skorzeny, a friend of Hitler, and reputed rescuer of Mussolini. Although reluctant to do so, he meets his match in Charles Haughey, another real life character who at that time was Minister of Justice but went on to become the country's controversial Prime Minister. As Neville himself has said, the question with these two outsize real life characters was how to tone them down enough to be believable. Why the powers that be are interested in protecting Skorzeny in this story is a good one, but I'll leave you to discover it in the book itself.
Ratlines is in some ways a traditional thriller with Ryan portrayed as a hardened and somewhat hollowed-out man. In this aspect, the book will appeal to Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch fans. But apart from the fascinating historical moment that Neville sets it in, I like the book best for its homelier moments, where you get glimpses of Dublin in an era where proper girls meet their landlady's curfew, and even our hero can be made to feel bad about wearing a suit that doesn't come from the right tailor. Neville has said that the Dublin he describes relies in part on the accounts of people who were alive in that era, and I hope he'll take full advantage of these resources for future books while they are still around to bear witness.