Review: Ratlines

Ratlines by Stuart Neville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, to say what it isn’t about. Ratlines. To be honest, it would have been more interesting if it actually had been an investigation into these escape routes for ex-Nazis, their workings and that of the Israelis in trying to expose them. If it had been, it may well have been more exciting, more tense and more of a thriller, than what we got from after the half way mark, which boils down to an ordinary extortion and robbery set in Ireland just after the Second World War.

Our main man, Albert Ryan, is a decent man, an ex-soldier. Unfortunately for him and many of his fellow country men’s opinion of him, he was fighting for the ‘wrong’ side. The English side. This presents one of the novel’s (several) interesting points. That the Irish may well have been more anti-British in WWII than they were anti-Germany. A theme echoed and perhaps more fully realised in the situation of the Breton nationalist characters’ situation. Where they were so anti-France, that they used the opportunity of the Nazi invasion, to ally themselves with the Nazis against the rest of France. Though they try to excuse themselves from being tarred by the holocaust brush. It is pointed out several times that they can’t pick and choose. He works for the Irish government’s intelligence services and is set to investigating the murders of several foreign nationals which may or may not be linked to the presence of a successful German businessman/ex-Nazi, living quite openly and participating quite prominently in Dublin’s social life in the early 1960’s. As his investigations progress, links to Skorzeny become more compelling and more dangerous. He also gets on the wrong side of an Israeli Mossad officer, who contrary to expectations, doesn’t want Skorzeny dead and also claims not to know who has been killing Skorzeny’s associates.

I did feel a bit short-changed, when it became clear it was basically about a gold robbery and kind of money-laundering operation. But that may just be me. The style reminded me a little of Len Deighton in SSGB. Which is a good thing. Yeah, the Nazi link, but more the period feel. Neville doesn’t go so much in for the descriptions as Deighton does, but there’s a real sense of time and place about the writing. The plotting is good and tight, the characters believable and interesting.

As I say, it does raise some very interesting ideas and themes concerning the aftermath of WWII in Europe, in Ireland. Apart from the possibility of Mossad operating unchecked, under Europe’s radar in tracking ex-Nazi war criminals, there is the Irish position during and after the war. And the Irish attitudes to those of their countrymen who fought for one old enemy, the English, against a new enemy, the Nazis. There was one conversation, where I got the idea that a thought prevalent in Ireland at the time of the Second World War and when the book was set, would be that the Nazis were an enemy on paper, but the Irish could clearly see they wouldn’t be one that would last too long, so it really wasn’t worth hating them in the way they should the English. The Nazis would soon be gone, but the English had been and would be (unfortunately, in Irish eyes) an enemy for a long time yet. I thought the book suggested an Irish view towards war-time Germany, was ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. But it also posed the question of what was the Irish view of those Irish people who had fought for Britain, when they returned to Ireland? And what of Charles Haughey? I’m guessing he’s dead, because he doesn’t come out of this book very well at all. These really interesting themes are raised, but not for me, developed and taken where they should be. They seemed to be swept aside at the expense of what started out as looking like an intriguing exploration of the Nazi escape routes from justice in Europe, but then became a more traditional-feeling bullion robbery heist.

It got bogged down around the half to two thirds mark in some eventually much too drawn-out, unnecessarily unpleasantly detailed torturing and people basically just moving things on by just questioning other people. I think as a whole, it does all hang together. Just. I could have done with, as I say, with more of an espionage angle, less of a Great Boat Robbery angle.

I think over all I’ll allow it hang by its fingertips to a 4. But with reservations. It did grip me – I read it in two days (though I never know if that’s good or bad to get so little time out of a £16.99 spend), it is well put together and plotted and it does all make sense with believable characters, believable situations and plenty to keep you thinking about under way.

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