reviewed by Keith Rawson
Queen Macha wasn’t a difficult choice for my story. After all, my home town of Armagh is named after her. So Ard Macha, meaning Macha’s high place, becomes Queen of the Hill, and she allows me to set a story in my own neck of the woods for the first time. But Macha is a slippery customer, and she could be any one of three mythical figures. Rather than choosing one, my Queen of the Hill takes a little from each. For example, the legend of the race against the king’s horses in which she gave birth to twins as she crossed the finish line becomes a game of poker and a ruined pair of shoes.
But one aspect of the legend is universal in all versions: her domination of the men she rules. She is a fearsome warrior of course, but she also used her sexuality to control those who desired her. In other words, she was that great archetype of noir fiction, the character that drove so many men to their dooms: she was the original femme fatale.
Watch out, or she’ll be the death of you.
I’ll start off my review with an excerpt from Neville’s intro to “Queen of the Hill”:
…But one aspect of the legend is universal in all versions: her domination of the men she rules. She is a fearsome warrior of course, but she also used her sexuality to control those who desired her. In other words, she was that great archetype of noir fiction, the character that drove so many men to their dooms: she was the original femme fatale.”
Yeah, I’m a sucker for femme fatales, plus Neville has quickly cemented himself as one of my favorite writers of Irish noir, so it’s a given that I’d wanted to review his story. “Queen of the Hill” starts off with scumbag Cam the Hun making the trek to a Christmas party being thrown by the Queen, Ann Mahon, the local drug Queenpin. But Cam isn’t headed to the party to revel in holiday cheer, but to execute the queen on the orders of Mahon’s rival Davey Pollock. Cam is more than a little reluctant due to his long sexual/narcotics association with Mahon. Like most Irish hardmen, Cam has a big gaping soft spot for his mother, and the only way he’ll be allowed back into town to spend Christmas with her is if he slits the Queen’s throat, plus Pollock throws in ten grand to sweeten the deal. Cam arrives at the party and Mahon immediately attempts to entice Cam with sex and drugs with the hopes that she can convince him into doing Pollock in. Cam is a sea of conflicting emotions, at least until the Queen gives him a sticky, wet Christmas present.
Neville’s true gift as a writer is in exposition and being allowed to play with characters across the broad canvass of a novel (as is evident in his debut the Ghosts of Belfast and his heart rending follow up, Collusion.) but we often forget that Neville started his career as a short story writer and how powerful—and brutal—his gifts are in short form. “Queen of the Hill” is one of the best examples of Neville’s strength in creating terse, highly suspenseful short fiction and is an explosively violent way to open Requiems for the Departed.