The Ghosts of Belfast was massively praised by everyone and their third-cousin-thrice-removed in 2009 and rightfully so. Stuart Neville’s debut combined supernatural horror and crime seamlessly while managing to be endlessly entertaining, gloriously dark and, you know, about something, said something being the after effects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Like all arts and entertainment coverage, the debut work is the one that gets the coverage and coverage Belfast very well fucking got (Neville was even on Craig Ferguson for fuck’s sake!). But when the follow-up is as strong as Collusion undoubtedly fucking is, it’s a shame that sequels can’t get anything near the level of publicity that debuts receive.
Republican leader (in the Irish sense, dear American reader) Bull O’Kane may have narrowly survived the shootout on his compound at the end of The Ghosts of Belfast, but on his sickbed he sleeps fretfully, a shell of the mighty man he once was. Who is haunting his dreams but Gerry Fegan, the otherworldly instrument of violence now hiding out in New York. Looking to tie up loose ends in the wake of all the murders we witnessed in Belfast, Bull has hired a mysterious hitman named simply the Traveler to kill all involved, including Gerry Fegan, Marie McKenna and her little daughter Ellen. Ellen’s father and Marie’s ex Jack Lennon, a DI with the Belfast police, picks up the pattern after a few murders and soon, along with Gerry Fegan, takes it upon himself to protect Ellen and Marie from the increasingly deranged Traveler.
Though the masterpiece of a character that was Davy Campbell (one of my all-time favorite characters of recent fiction) is for obvious reasons missing in Collusion (by the way, if you haven’t figured it out yet, this book really does work better if you read the first novel, you know, first, so go do that now please), we get some solid runners-up with the Traveler and Jack Lennon this time out. The Traveler is a marvelous vision of sheer psycho-fucking-pathery. A man with no name, a shady past, a piece of plastic in his brain, a jones for adrenaline through violent acts, a fear of doctors, and some serious sensitivity surrounding his illiteracy, the Traveler is as evil as they come and always up for a bit of good natured ultraviolence.
With his character DI Jack Lennon, Neville nearly reaches the heights of complexity he found with Davy Campbell. Lennon (don’t call him John!) is a Catholic in the strictly Loyalist police force, a man whose Republican past has left him few friends on the force and whose job has left him with no family willing to speak with him. Once upon a time Marie McKenna risked her family ties by having a kid with him, a fucking peeler, and he threw it all away with an affair. Up until now he has satiated his crushing loneliness with booze and sex, either drunken or paid for, but upon hearing Ellen and Marie are in trouble he makes it his mission to get them back and keep them safe. After all, they’re all he has in the world.
Collusion still retains some of the supernatural elements of Belfast but not nearly as much so (and I’m not about to spoil how it finally rears its head late in the novel). In fact, there’s a lot less Gerry Fegan in Collusion as well. Personally, I think it works out. Gerry’s journey isn’t as big as it was in Belfast where he had to quiet the ghosts and find some redemption. Here he’s just trying to keep from hurting people, just trying to live peaceably in New York City, biding his time until the inevitable call that Marie and Ellen are in trouble. He’s already been redeemed, his only motivation any more is their safety, a journey that is more emotionally fruitful for a character like Lennon.
The pacing of Collusion is insane, shit taking off from the killer opening chapter and rarely letting up except to provide some juicy backstory on this character or that. Neville’s way with tension is only matched by his skill at action scenes, the final shootout actually somehow outdoing the dog fighting compound massacre that closed out Ghosts. The guy knows how to write violence, and if anybody can appreciate that shit, you know it’s your humble old Nerd, dear reader.
But even more important than the excitement of the finale is its emotional heft, and Collusion’s ending broke this hardened reader’s heart to pieces. If it doesn’t do the same to you, dear reader, you’re either more of a man than I or, more likely, a close cousin to our friend the Traveler…