Stuart Neville is a crime writer at the absolute top of his game at the moment and is doing things in the crime genre few others would attempt. After bursting onto the scene with The Twelve, an IRA hitman thriller with a supernatural edge, Neville has challenged himself and the crime genre with each subsequent book. I thought he hit the heights with his historical crime novel Ratlinesbut his new series featuring DCI Serena Flanagan has gone to new levels of brilliance.
In the first DCI Serena Flanagan novel, Those We Left Behind, Neville created a crime thriller that skillfully demonstrated that a crime story doesn’t ever end. The effects are always long-lasting and neither truth nor justice can ever provide the closure required by those left behind. Neville again shows this when we catch up with DCI Flanagan in the new novel with the events of that novel continuing to have ramifications on both her professional and personal lives.
The second DCI Flanagan novel deals with a classic tale of the crime genre; a wife and her lover knocking off her husband, killing him to make it look like suicide, with the wife set to inherit a fortune. But Neville plays this story out with a couple of differences. Firstly as a reader we know straight up it is a murder not suicide. There is no mystery to unravel. We know who is guilty and it is up to DCI Flanagan to work out if there has been foul play or not. Secondly, the lover is a priest. Neville plays all this out while DCI Flanagan struggles to keep her family together while giving her job the dedication she knows it requires.
I never thought a crime novel without a central mystery could be so tense and page-turning. I surprised myself a number of times with how much I got sucked into this novel. The way Neville explores the burden placed on a detective is superb and an angle that has fallen into cliché in too many other crime novels. The tension of the story also builds unawares, on both sides of the story, as Neville tells the story from both the detective and the killers’ points of view with completely different tension on both sides that all comes to a dramatic head by the end of the novel.
Those Left Behind was an outstanding piece of crime fiction. Unfortunately as the story dealt with two teenage boys handselling the book proved a challenge. Hopefully with this new book passionate crime readers will discover a fantastic new series that is doing things in the crime genre few others are attempting and fewer still are able to pull off. If you haven’t read Stuart Neville yet now is the time to start.
Last year I called Stuart Neville’s Those We Left Behind “a true hallmark of the genre,” and have spent the months since its release desperate to read his next. You know what it’s like when the shadow of an absolutely brilliant crime novel casts over subsequent books in your reading stack: oh, there’s stuff there you’ll enjoy, but nothing quite matches up to the quality of that effervescent goliath. So when an ARC of the second Serena Flanagan novel dropped in my lap, it was very much a case of drop everything and read! Expectations were high — hyperbolic, in fact — and I felt a slight twinge that I’d placed too much of a burden on Neville’s shoulders. I hadn’t, though. Like its predecessor, So Say the Fallen is a brilliant crime novel, and further underlines Stuart Neville’s credentials as one of the best contemporary crime writers.
When So Say the Fallen opens, DCI Serena Flanagan is still dealing with the fallout from her last major case, detailed in Those We Left Behind (which I won’t delve into here – this is a safe place, readers, free from spoilers). Suffice to say, her home life is suffering as a result, and the breakdown of her marriage seems imminent. The new case thrust into her hands doesn’t appear to have the same significance: a severely disabled local businessman has committed suicide, and Flanagan is called to the scene to sign off on the cause of death. The scene is clean, and all evidence points to suicide – but something about the businessman’s widow troubles Flanagan. So too the edginess of the reverend, with whom the widow is suspiciously close to. Despite the wishes of her superiors, Flanagan digs deeper, unravelling the tragedies that have plagued the widow’s life — and eventually the cold, dark truth.
Faith plays an integral role in So Say the Fallen —both the reverend’s, and Flanagan’s — and it’s a theme that is explored with incredible deftness. I’m always wary of being preached to when religion pops up in books, but nothing like that is evident here; it’s beautifully unobtrusive, and adds a new layer to Neville’s protagonist. At multiple points during this story, Flanagan finds herself questioning her path, and trying to fill a void in her life: faith in a higher power would go some way to restoring her. It’s not as cut-and-dried as that, of course – but I truly admire Neville’s willingness to dive into the subject.
In terms of narrative structure, So Say the Fallen isn’t so much a whodunit — we know the truth, or at least shades of it, very early on in the piece —but an extrapolation of motive. Indeed, motive is the driving force behind the novel, as Neville seeks to answer what inspires Flanagan to put her life on the line – and the sanctity of her family – every single day; why does the reverend continue to preach, given the dissipation of his own faith; why would a disabled businessman, who had apparently accepted his fate, suddenly decide to end his own life? This is less a novel of who, but rather, why. And it offers a nice change of pace from the archetypal mysteries clogging bookstore shelves.
So Say the Fallen is a damn fine novel, blending high personal stakes and character depth alongside traditional genre elements. Without question it will rank as one of the best crime novels I read this year. Anything that tops it will have to absolutely blow my socks off. It’s really that good.