Our understanding of distant places is so often based purely on their politics – particularly if they have some perceived impact on our own. Journalists tend to focus on that politics, because they can interview leaders and quote ordinary people talking about what those leaders are doing. Let’s say that journalism’s problem is that its aim for objectivity guides it toward the superficialities of politics, while also demanding that it give us an explanation for what’s going on.
Fiction at its best goes beyond such surface politics. It isn’t limited by objectivity. It gives a writer who knows what lies beneath the opportunity to lay it out for us. Only then can we really understand a place. That’s what I’ve felt in writing my novels about Palestinian detective Omar Yussef – who lives in a West Bank locale much talked about by politicians, diplomats and journalists but very little understood. It’s also the great strength of Stuart Neville’s incisive new thriller “Collusion.” (Soho Press, $25)
Neville won the LA Times Book Prize last year for his superb debut “The Ghosts of Belfast.” In that novel, former IRA hitman Gerry Fegan is tormented by the ghosts of his victims. To assuage the ghosts’ demands for revenge, he embarks on a strange spree – killing the men who put him up to those murders. On the way, he understands that he had been a dupe. Top Republicans made money from The Troubles. Now that peace has arrived, they still benefit from the same gangland power, while traumatized bit players like Fegan drink themselves to death.
In Neville’s sequel, that realization is expanded to include the collusion of the title. Jack Lennon, a Catholic detective on the Ulster police force, gradually comes to understand that the supposed battles between different powers in Northern Ireland weren’t the real story. In reality the leaders of these feuding groups relied on each other.
Confronting a Loyalist gang leader, Lennon says: “The collusion, it goes all ways, all direction. All the likes of you ever cared about was lining your own pockets. You didn’t give a shit about any cause, did you? Just so long as you were making money.”
It’s insight like this that makes “Collusion” a better way to understand Northern Ireland since its 1998 Good Friday peace agreement than any number of political science papers.