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In Neville's Thrillers, Belfast's Violent Past Still Burns

Bonfires light up the Belfast skyline on July 12, 1997, as Protestant loyalists commemorate the 17th century victory of a Protestant king over his deposed Catholic predecessor. Known as the Battle of the Boyne, the confrontation is part of a long history of tensions in the region. (AP)

At 41, with long black hair, Stuart Neville looks more like the rock guitarist he used to be than the author he is now. He lives in a small town with his family — not in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city that plays a central role in his thrillers, but just outside it.

This week, world leaders are gathered in Northern Ireland for the G-8 conference, but such a meeting would have been unthinkable before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought Catholics and Protestants together in a new, tense, power-sharing government. Neville sets most of his work in the time following that agreement, which ended the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles.

An Uneasy Truce

Standing outside what was formerly the Northern Bank, across from Belfast's City Hall, Neville recalls the details of a heist in which approximately 26 million pounds were stolen. Residents still talk about it today.

"They drove a lorry up the side, opened the door, money was loaded into the lorry and away they went," Neville says. "Of course it turned out within a few days it was the IRA who'd done it. They had kidnapped somebody who worked for the bank, forced them to come and load the money up. I remember jokes at the time, you know: This was a retirement fund for the boys."

"The boys" means the leadership of the Irish Republican Army, and jokers called the heist a "retirement fund" because the robbery happened in 2004, while The Troubles ended in 1998 — at least, on paper. From that point forward, there was officially a truce between the Protestant loyalists who want Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom and the Catholic Republicans who want all of Ireland to be united.

Neville writes about the aftermath of The Troubles — the crime that continued, the demand for revenge, the tensions within the police and the paramilitaries. His first book, The Ghosts of Belfast, examines the shattered life of an IRA killer, and in two other novels he continues to explore the legacy of The Troubles. It's a tense history of violence that isn't always visible on Belfast's surface.

"It's such a pretty place," Neville says, on a bench at the Botanic Gardens park near Queens University. He's describing both the real-world view and a scene that he wrote set in this picturesque location. "We're sitting here in front of the Palm House, which is all white, metal and plasterwork and glass. Surrounded by all these gardens and so on, and there's a man with murder in his heart. "

Neville's fictional character Gerry Fegan had been an assassin for the IRA. He got out of prison and started killing the people whose orders he'd been following. But he's looking for a different life as he walks in the park with a new friend and her daughter.

"And the little girl wants to hold his hand, and he finds the idea of it just terrifying, of being a normal person," Neville says. "You know, he's out with Marie McKenna for what should be a pleasant walk. Internally he's dealing with the killings that he's been a part of and that he's still part of."

In Neville's books, Fegan is connected by spidery plot lines to Detective Inspector Jack Lennon. Lennon is a Catholic who left college to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Protestants, a majority on that police force, don't trust him. Catholics decide he is a traitor. His family disowns him. Lennon drinks, throws money away and has a fondness for prostitutes.

Lennon is not a likeable protagonist, Neville says: "Readers, I've found, have actually found him harder to sympathize with, as womanizer, than Gerry Fegan, who's a mass murderer. People are more ready to accept this man who's killed women and children then they were this man who couldn't keep it in his pants."

From Reader To Writer

Near the gardens, on Botanic Avenue, the No Alibis Bookstore is one of the few shops in the world specializing in crime fiction. Neville was a fan and a customer before he was a writer. Now he holds his book launch parties here. And when the superstars of crime fiction from the U.S. have a new release, this shop is on their tour.

"Seven hundred people to come and see James Ellroy was an amazing turnout," says David Torrans, the owner of No Alibis. "And 400-plus for Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Word gets back to authors; they can't believe this, so they want to come to Belfast, so long may it last."

Neville spent research time in bookstores and in libraries, as well as interviewing veterans of The Troubles — and riding in black taxis. Cab drivers sometimes give "Troubles Tours," showing passengers graffiti, murals, bombing sites and graveyards from Belfast's violent past. Today, cabbie Billy Scott drives Neville around the city to point out some of the sights.

Scott stops beside a looming concrete structure, 42 feet high, that runs for hundreds of yards. It's a "peace wall," built in the 1970s.

"This side here is Protestant," Scott explains, "and the far side of the wall there, that's all Catholic. See what would have happened, at the start of Troubles it was all burnt-out streets here: the alleyways, the entryways. So you had all the ammunition that the rioters needed, you know, the bricks and the stones. The burnt-out houses gave cover for the snipers for both sides."

During The Troubles and now, Belfast residents have responded to such violence by referring to "the cause." As Scott puts it, in a taxi-driver joke, "You'll never get mugged or robbed in Belfast. And if anything worse than that happens to you, don't worry, 'cause it's for the cause."

A Brighter View

Out of the taxi, Neville walks through the downtown streets to the new Victoria Square Shopping Centre, which rises grandly in glass and metal four stories high. A place like this, he says, surely would have been a bombing target 30 years ago.

A glass elevator leads to the observation deck. Neville looks out on a panoramic view of the city, and the shipyards and the waterways leading to the Irish Sea. From here, he can see many of the places he's written about. His book Stolen Souls opens with a bloody killing and a failed escape in the darkness of the Belfast waterfront.

"Galya Petrova, the young Ukrainian girl who's forced into prostitution in Belfast, she has killed one of her captors," Neville says. "She's brought — with the body of the man she's killed — by the human trafficking guy to the docks over towards the east there."

But there's certainly a brighter view available from the deck. You can see the new Titanic museum, honoring that ship's construction, and the vast soundstage for the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is based in Belfast.

Tourism is coming up fast: Sixty cruise ships will be stopping at Belfast Harbour this season. Back during the difficult times, people say, nobody came but backpackers.

While Belfast is no longer the burned-out city that it once was, The Troubles still overshadow the city's story. "We have this kind of strange, contradictory feeling about The Troubles," Neville says. "We're kind of ashamed of it, kind of proud of it at the same time."

And the aftermath of that bloody period continues to inspire new stories. Neville's next novel with Detective Jack Lennon, The Final Silence, comes out next April.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are turning the page, this morning, on a new season of our annual summer series Crime in the City. This is where we profile crime novelists and the cities they write about. We begin today in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As we're reporting elsewhere in the show, world leaders are gathered in Northern Ireland for the annual G-8 summit. Holding a meeting of world leaders there would have been unthinkable before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That brought Northern Ireland's once bitterly divided Catholic and Protestant communities together in a new, tense, power-sharing government.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: The novelist Stuart Neville is author of "The Ghosts of Belfast," and he sets most of his work in the time following that agreement, which ended the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles. NPR's Noah Adams introduces us to Stuart Neville's Belfast.

ADAMS: I met Neville in the hotel lobby. He'd come in by train from the small town where he lives with his family. I recognized him from the book jackets. He's 41; long, black hair. He looks more like the rock guitar player he thought he was going to be. But stories became more powerful to him than songs. Here's a true-life example.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND STREET NOISES)

ADAMS: We walk over to a bank right across from City Hall. A robbery here is still talked about - 26 million pounds in cash.

Right here?

STUART NEVILLE: Right here. They drove a lorry up to the side, opened the door; money was loaded into the lorry; away they went. Of course, it turned out - within a few days - it was the IRA who'd done it. They had kidnapped somebody who worked for the bank, forced them to come and load the money up. You know, I remember jokes at the time - you know, this was a retirement fund for the boys.

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: The boys, that would be the IRA leadership; and retirement fund because this robbery was in 2004, six years after the Good Friday deal - the agreement between the Protestant loyalists, who want to stay in United Kingdom, and the Catholic Republicans, who want all of Ireland to be together. In Northern Ireland these days, there is still a demand for revenge, tensions within the police and the paramilitaries, and ordinary crime. This is what drives the fiction of Stuart Neville.

NEVILLE: It's such a pretty place. We're sitting here in front of the Palm House, which is all white; metal and plasterwork and glass, surrounded by all these gardens and so on. And there's a man with murder in his heart.

ADAMS: Neville and I sit on a bench in the Botanic Gardens Park near Queens University. We talk about a scene he wrote as happening here. Neville's fictional character Gerry Fegan had been an assassin for the IRA. Fegan was released from the notorious Maze Prison after the peace agreement; and he started killing again, this time dragging down those who had ordered the executions. But as he walks in the park with a new friend and her daughter, Fegan's looking for a different life.

NEVILLE: And the little girl wants to hold his hand, and he finds the idea of it just terrifying - of being a normal person. You know, he's out with Marie McKenna for what should be a pleasant walk. Internally, he's dealing with the killings that he's been a part of and that he's still a part of.

ADAMS: Gerry Fegan, in Stuart Neville's books, is connected by spidery plot lines to Detective Inspector Jack Lennon. Lennon is Catholic. He left college to join the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Protestants, a majority on that police force, didn't trust him; Catholics decided he was a traitor; his family disowned him. Lennon can be tough, sometimes heroic. But he drinks too much, throws money away, has a fondness for prostitutes. He is not a likeable protagonist.

NEVILLE: Readers, I've found, have actually found him harder to sympathize with, as a womanizer; than Gerry Fegan, who's a mass murderer. People are more ready to accept this man who has killed women and children, then they were this man who couldn't keep it in his pants.

DAVID TORRANS: My name is David Torrans, and I'm the owner of No Alibis Book Shop in Belfast.

ADAMS: No Alibis is down the street, on Botanic Avenue. It's one of the few shops in the world that specializes in crime fiction. Stuart Neville was a fan and a customer before he was a writer. And now, he holds his book-launch parties here. And when the superstars of crime fiction from the U.S. have a new release, this shop is on their tour.

TORRANS: Seven hundred people, to come and see James Ellroy, was an amazing turnout; and 400-plus for Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Word gets back to authors. They can't believe this, so they want to come to Belfast. So long may it last.

ADAMS: Stuart Neville spent research time in the bookstores, libraries; interviewing veterans of The Troubles; and riding in Billy Scott's black taxi.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE STARTING)

ADAMS: Lots of these around; they look like the London taxis. The drivers will take you on a Troubles Tour to see the graffiti and the murals, and the bombing sites, the graveyards. We stop beside a looming, concrete structure 42 feet high, that runs for hundreds of yards. It was built in the 1970s and called a peace wall.

BILLY SCOTT: Well, 'cause this side here is Protestant; and the far side of the wall there, that's all Catholic. See, what would have happened - at the start of Troubles, it was all burnt-out streets here; you know, the the alleyways, the entryways. So, you had all the ammunition that the rioters needed, you know, the bricks and the stones. The burnt-out houses gave cover for their snipers and whatnot, from both sides.

ADAMS: We will leave Billy Scott with one of his taxi-driver jokes. And listen to what he says about the cause, during The Troubles and even now. That's what paramilitary groups have often said about extortion, prostitution, drugs, killing.

SCOTT: You'll never get mugged or robbed in Belfast. And if anything worse than that happens to you, don't worry 'cause it's for the cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ADAMS: We walk through the downtown streets to the new Victoria Square Shopping Centre, which rises grandly in glass and metal four stories high. A place like this, 30 years ago, Neville says, for sure would have been a bombing target.

A glass elevator carries us up to the observation deck. It's a panoramic view of the city, and the shipyards, and the waterways leading out to the Irish Sea. From here, Stuart Neville can see many of the settings for his fiction. His book "Stolen Souls" opens with a bloody killing and a failed escape there, on the waterfront.

NEVILLE: Galya Petrova - the young, Ukrainian girl who's forced into prostitution in Belfast - she has killed one of her captors. And she's brought, with the body of the man she's killed - by the human trafficking guy - to the docks over towards the east there.

ADAMS: But there's certainly a brighter view from the observation deck. You can see the new Titanic museum, and the vast soundstage for "Game of Thrones." The HBO series is based in Belfast. Tourism is coming up fast - 60 cruise ships will be stopping at Belfast Harbor this season. Used to be, people say, nobody came but backpackers. And indeed, there will always be The Troubles overshadowing the stories of Belfast.

NEVILLE: We have this kind of strange, contradictory feeling with The Troubles. And we're kind of ashamed of it, and we're kind of proud of it - at the same time.

ADAMS: Stuart Neville's next book - with Detective Jack Lennon - comes out next April. It's called "The Final Silence." Noah Adams, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you can visit Stuart Neville's Belfast, and see photos and excerpts from the book, there at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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