Ireland, in the summer of 1963, is preparing for a visit from U.S. President John F. Kennedy when a series of murders draws unwelcome attention to the community of ex-Nazis sheltering in the country while its government turns a blind eye. Intelligence officer Lieutenant Albert Ryan is ordered to investigate and make the bad publicity go away.
Stuart Neville’s earlier books have received considerable acclaim, but I was disappointed in Ratlines. The setting is original, covering an aspect of post-war history which has unsurprisingly been swept under the carpet. The plot is gratifyingly complex and the pace relentless (and the violence liberal, if a little unoriginal), but setting and characterisation are perfunctory and put me in mind of the literary equivalent of painting by numbers. Period references to a new film about a glamorous secret agent called James Bond should be a neat intertextual joke, but are too heavy-handed. Although the dog-loving, vintage swilling torturer, Celestin Laine, is a joyful villain, Ryan himself is clumsily characterised. The devices used to distance him from Bond are too obvious – his ‘saggy’ face and cheap suits, a girlfriend (only just on the right side of a Bond girl) who calls him Bertie. Most catastrophic to the narrative, however, is his compassionate streak. At a crucial point he fails to follow through as a professional agent should and, for me, this made him, and the rest of the story, implausible. The plot no longer felt strong enough to support the action.
Ratlines is entertaining enough, and I would be content to find it in my holiday villa for a spot of beach reading but ultimately, the book fails to deliver on its promise.