Book Review – THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND (2015) by Stuart Neville

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by STUART NEVILLE (2015, Vintage, 362pp) ∗∗∗½

Blurb: When 12-year-old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father it sent shock waves through the nation. DCI Serena Flanagan, then an ambitious Detective Sergeant, took Ciaran’s confession after days spent earning his trust. He hasn’t forgotten the kindness she showed him – in fact, she hasn’t left his thoughts in the seven years he’s been locked away. Probation officer Paula Cunningham, now tasked with helping Ciaran re-enter society, suspects there was more to this case than the police uncovered. Ciaran’s confession saved his brother Thomas from a far lengthier sentence, and Cunningham can see the unnatural hold Thomas still has over his vulnerable younger brother. When she brings her fears to DCI Flanagan, the years of lies begin to unravel, setting a deadly chain of events in motion.

Stuart Neville’s sixth novel focuses on a new lead character, DCI Serena Flanagan, who made her first appearance in a supporting role in Neville’s previous book, THE FINAL SILENCE. Flanagan is a driven character, but also a wife and mother, who has recently recovered from breast cancer surgery. This element of her life links into a sub-plot about the tragic killing of a friend who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This sub-plot is primarily designed to draw the reader into believing that Flangan’s instinctive approach to detection is accurate and sets her apart from her colleagues as the rest of this particular scenario is played out rather disappointingly.

The main plot, concerning the release of juvenile murderers Thomas and Ciaran Devine, is a fairly straight-forward psychological thriller. Flanagan’s approach in gaining Ciaran’s confidence by playing on the teenager’s crush on her leads to tensions with colleagues in her department. The author highlights Flanagan’s sexual rejection by her husband, following her surgery and contrasts this with her confused feelings for the handsome, but disturbed young man. Flanagan’s exploitation of Ciaran in an attempt to find the truth about a pair of murders – one historic and one present – adds some electricity to an otherwise predictable story. Thomas’ manipulation of his younger brother is well observed and, as ever, Neville’s writing is never less than absorbing.

In its final chapters the story adopts a more conventional approach with the brothers invading Flanagan’s home and then later the resultant manhunt and its ultimate resolution. Neville smartly quickens the pace by shortening his chapters and sentences whilst making effective use of the cliffhanger to keep the reader turning the pages.

THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, then is an exciting, if predictable, read that confirms Neville as one of the strongest crime fiction writers around. He is to continue using Flanagan as his main character in the follow-up SO SAY THE FALLEN. She is an interesting character and will undoubtedly develop in Neville’ capable hands.

Book Review – THE FINAL SILENCE (2014) by Stuart Neville

THE FINAL SILENCE by STUART NEVILLE (2014, Vintage, 336pp) ∗∗∗∗
      Blurb: Rea Carlisle has inherited a house from an uncle she never knew. It doesn’t take her long to clear out the dead man’s remaining possessions, but one room remains stubbornly locked. When Rea finally forces it open she discovers inside a chair, a table – and a leather-bound book. Inside its pages are locks of hair, fingernails: a catalogue of victims.
Horrified, Rea wants to go straight to the police but when her family intervene, fearing the damage it could cause to her father’s political career, Rea turns to the only person she can think of: DI Jack Lennon. But Lennon is facing his own problems. Suspended from the force and hounded by DCI Serena Flanagan, the toughest cop he’s ever faced, Lennon must unlock the secrets of a dead man’s terrifying journal.

This is the fourth of Stuart Neville’s crime thrillers featuring Belfast Detective Inspector Jack Lennon. We catch up with Lennon some time after the events of the excellent STOLEN SOULS (2013) recovering from post-traumatic stress having been shot in the previous book. He is on leave from the force and on the verge of splitting with his partner, Susan, who looks after their daughters from other relationships. It is against this domestic backdrop that Lennon links up with his ex-girlfriend, Rea, who has discovered her uncle, who had recently committed suicide, was keeping a dark secret. When Rea discovers the book she had found documenting a number of murders has gone missing leaving her nothing to show Lennon, the detective declines to help. When later Rea is murdered, Lennon is implicated as the prime suspect.

What follows is a familiar but expertly written variant on the fugitive trying the clear his name story. We are introduced to DCI Serena Flanagan (who will feature in her own series later), tasked with tracking down Lennon, who is on the run trying to clear his name. Flanagan also has problems of her own having been diagnosed with breast cancer and struggling to come to terms with her mortality. We also discover Rea’s father is a politician with his own secrets to protect. Neville expertly weaves themes of domestic violence, terrorist activity, political ambition and the psyche of a serial killer into his novel. His writing style is visual but concise with short sharp chapters many ending with a hook to take the reader to the next. As such it is the very definition of the page-turner.

Lennon has degenerated into an thoughtless and dislikeable individual by this book, yet the reader sticks with him as he tries to prove his innocence. There are questions from previous books still left unanswered at the conclusion, signifying Neville is not yet done with his characters. Flanagan is the career professional who likes to get things done by the book, but we also see her compassionate side through her consoling of Rea’s mother in both the death of her daughter and the abuse she has taken from her husband.

Overall, this book is a great read, that whilst written in a concise and efficient manner still manages to create three-dimensional characters. Whilst the subject matter is familiar there are enough twists in the story for it to remain an exciting thriller.