A German businessman is the third to die: murdered in a seaside guesthouse.
A note pinned on his body is addressed to Colonel Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s favourite commando and once the most dangerous man in Europe. It warns Skorzeny that they are coming for him next.
Lieutenant Albert Ryan is ordered by the Irish Minister for Justice, Charles Haughey, to protect Skorzeny, but Ryan defied his parents and scandalised his home town to join the British Army and fight the Nazi regime. Can Ryan bring himself to protect a man who caused the deaths of thousands: a man who now lives safely in Ireland in the lap of luxury?
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About the Author
Stuart Neville’s first novel, The Twelve, was one of the most critically acclaimed crime debuts of recent years, winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best thriller. Collusion, Stolen Souls, Ratlines (shortlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger), The Final Silence and Those We Left Behind (a Richard and Judy Book Club choice) have garnered widespread praise, confirming his position as one of the most exciting crime authors writing today.
Read an Excerpt
“You don’t look like a Jew,” Helmut Krauss said to the man
reflected in the window pane.
Beyond the glass, rolling white waves threw themselves
against the rocks of Galway Bay, the Atlantic glowering
beyond. The guesthouse in Salthill was basic, but clean. The
small seaside town outside Galway City hosted families from
all over Ireland seeking a few days of salt air and sunshine
during the summer months. Sometimes it provided beds for
unmarried couples, fornicators and adulterers with the nerve
to bluff their way past the morally upright proprietors of such
Krauss knew so because he had enjoyed the company of several
ladies in guesthouses like this one, taking bracing walks along
the seafront, enduring overcooked meals in mostly empty dining
rooms, then finally rattling the headboard of whatever bed they
had taken. He carried a selection of wedding rings in his pocket,
alongside the prophylactics.
This dreary island, more grey than green, so choked by the
Godly, provided him few pleasures. So why not enjoy the odd
sordid excursion with a needful woman?
Perhaps Krauss should have allowed himself the luxury of a
decent hotel in the city, but a funeral, even if for a close friend,
did not seem a fitting occasion. The security might have been
better, though, and this visitor might not have gained entry so
easily. For a moment, Krauss felt an aching regret, but immediately
dismissed it as foolishness. Had he been the kind of man
who submitted to regret, he would have hanged himself ten
“Are you a Jew?” Krauss asked.
The reflection shifted. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“I saw you at the funeral,” Krauss said. “It was a beautiful
“Very,” the reflection said. “You wept.”
“He was a good man,” Krauss said. He watched seagulls as
they skated the updrafts.
“He was a murderer of women and children,” the reflection
said. “Like you.”
“Murderer,” Krauss said. “Your accent is British. For many
people in Ireland, you British are murderers. Oppressors.
The reflection swelled on the glass as the man approached.
“You hide your accent well.”
“I enjoy the spoken word. To a fault, perhaps, but I spend time
refining and practicing my speech. Besides, a German accent still
draws attention, even in Ireland. They shelter me, but not all
make me welcome. Some cling to their British overmasters like a
child too old for the teat.”
Krauss had felt the weight of his age more frequently in recent
times. His thick black hair had greyed, the sculpted features
turned cragged. The veins in his nose had begun to rupture
with the vodka and wine. Women no longer stared at him with
hungry eyes when he took his afternoon walks through Dublin’s
Ringsend Park. But he still had good years ahead of him, however
few. Would this man steal them from him?
“Have you come to kill me too?” he asked.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” the reflection said.
“May I take a drink, perhaps smoke a cigarette?”
Krauss turned to him. A man of middle age, between forty
and forty five, old enough to have served in the war. He had
looked younger across the cemetery, dressed in the overalls of a
gravedigger, but proximity showed the lines on his forehead and
around his eyes. Sand-coloured hair strayed beneath the woollen
cap on his head. He held a pistol, a Browning fitted with a suppressor,
aimed squarely at Krauss’s chest. It shook.
“Would you care for a small vodka?” Krauss asked. “Perhaps it
will steady your nerve.”
The man considered for a few seconds. “All right,” he said.
Krauss went to the nightstand where a bottle of imported
vodka and a tea making set waited next to that morning’s Irish
Times. The front page carried a headline about the forthcoming
visit of President John F Kennedy, a story concerning a
request by the Northern Irish government that he should venture
across the border during his days on the island. The Irish
worshipped the American leader because he was one of theirs,
however many generations removed, and anticipation of his
arrival had reached a point of near hysteria. Krauss intended
to avoid all radio and television broadcasts for the duration of
Not that it mattered now.
Krauss turned two white teacups over and poured a generous
shot into each. He went to soften one with water from a jug, but
the man spoke.
“No water, thank you.”
Krauss smiled as he handed a cup to the man. “No glasses, I’m
afraid. I hope you don’t mind.”
The man nodded his thanks as he took the cup with his left
hand. Undiluted vodka spilled over the lip. He took a sip and
Krauss reached into the breast pocket of his best black suit.
The man’s knuckle whitened beneath the trigger guard. Krauss
slowed the movement of his hand and produced a gold cigarette
case. He opened it, and extended it to the man.
“No, thank you.” The man did not flinch at the engraved
swastika as Krauss had hoped. Perhaps he wasn’t a Jew, just some
Krauss took a Peter Stuyvesant, his only concession to
Americanism, and gripped it between his lips as he snapped the
case closed and returned it to his pocket. He preferred Marlboro,
but they were too difficult to come by in this country. He took
the matching lighter from his trouser pocket and sucked the
petrol taste from its flame. The set had been a Christmas gift
from Wilhelm Frick. Krauss treasured it. Blue smoke billowed
between the men.
“Please sit,” Krauss said, indicating the chair in the corner.
He lowered himself onto the bed and drew deeply on the cigarette,
letting the heat fill his throat and chest. “May I know your
name?” he asked.
“You may not,” the man said.
“All right. So why?”
The man took another sip, grimaced at the taste, and placed
the cup on the windowsill to his left. “Why what?”
“Why kill me?”
“I haven’t decided if I’ll kill you or not, yet. I want to ask a few
Krauss sighed and leaned back against the headboard, crossing
his legs on the lumpy mattress. “Very well.”
“Who was the well-dressed Irishman you spoke with?”
“An insultingly junior civil servant,” Krauss said.
Eoin Tomalty had given Krauss’s hand a firm shake after the
ceremony. “The minister sends his condolences,” Tomalty had
said. “I’m sure you’ll understand why he was unable to attend in
Krauss had smiled and nodded, yes, of course he understood.
“A civil servant?” the man asked. “The government actually
sent a representative?”
“A matter of courtesy.”
“Who were the others there?”
“You already know,” Krauss said. “You know me, so you must
“Tell me anyway.”
Krauss rhymed them off. “Célestin Lainé, Albert Luykx, and
Caoimhín Murtagh representing the IRA.”
“They are fools,” Krauss said. “Yokels pretending to be soldiers.
They still believe they can free Ireland from you British. But they
are useful fools, so we avail of their assistance from time to time.”
“Such as arranging funerals.”
The man leaned forward. “Where was Skorzeny?”
Krauss laughed. “Otto Skorzeny does not waste his precious
time with common men like me. He is far too busy attending
society parties in Dublin, or entertaining politicians at that damn
farm of his.”
The man reached inside his jacket pocket and produced a
sealed envelope. “You will pass this message to him.”
“I’m sorry,” Krauss said. “I cannot.”
“Young man, you misunderstand me,” Krauss said. He downed
the rest of the vodka and placed the cup back on the bedside
table. “I admit to being verbose at times, it is a failing of mine,
but I believe I was clear on this. I did not say ‘I will not’. I said
‘I cannot’. I have no access to Otto Skorzeny, not socially, not
politically. You’d do better going to one of the Irish politicians
that gather to his flame.”
The man got to his feet, approached the bed, keeping the
Browning’s aim level. With his free hand, he opened Krauss’s
jacket and stuffed the envelope down into the breast pocket.
“Don’t worry. He’ll get it.”
Krauss felt his bowel loosen. He drew hard on the cigarette,
burning it down to the filter, before stubbing it out in the ashtray
that sat on the bedside locker.
The man’s hand steadied.
Krauss sat upright, swung his legs off the bed, and rested his
feet on the floor. He straightened his back and placed his hands
on his knees.
Fixing his gaze on the horizon beyond the window, Krauss
said, “I have money. Not much, but some. It would have been
enough to see out my days. You can have it. All of it. I will flee.
The rain in this damn place makes my joints ache anyway.”
The Browning’s suppressor nudged his temple.
“It’s not that simple,” the man said.
Krauss hauled himself to his feet. The man stood back, the
“Yes it is,” Krauss said, his voice wavering as he fought the
tears. “It is that simple. I am nothing. I was a desk clerk. I signed
papers, stamped forms, and got piles from sitting on a wooden
chair in the dark and the damp.”
The man pressed the muzzle against the centre of Krauss’s
forehead. “Those papers you signed. You slaughtered thousands
with a pen. Maybe that’s how you live with it, tell yourself it was
just a job, but you knew where—”
Krauss swiped at the pistol, grabbed it, forced it down, throwing
the other man’s balance. The man regained his footing,
hardened his stance. His countenance held its calm, only the
bunching of his jaw muscles betraying his resistance.
Sweat prickled Krauss’s skin and pressure built in his head.
He hissed through his teeth as he tried to loosen the man’s
fingers. The man raised the weapon, his strength rendering
Krauss’s effort meaningless. Their noses almost touched. Krauss
roared, saw the wet points of spittle he sprayed on the man’s
He heard a crack, felt a punch to his stomach, followed by wet
heat spreading across his abdomen. His legs turned to water, and
he released his hold on the barrel. He crumpled to his knees. His
hands clutched his belly, red seeping between his fingers.
Hot metal pressed against Krauss’s temple.
“It’s better than you deserve,” the man said.
If he’d had the time, Helmut Krauss would have said, “I know.”
Albert Ryan waited with the director, Ciaran Fitzpatrick, in
the outer office, facing the secretary as she read a magazine.
The chairs were creaky and thin-cushioned. Ryan endured while
Fitzpatrick fidgeted. Almost an hour had passed since Ryan had
met the director in the courtyard surrounded by the grand complex
of buildings on Upper Merrion Street. The northern and
southern wings were occupied by various government departments,
and the Royal College of Science resided beneath the
dome that reached skyward on the western side of the quadrangle.
Ryan had expected to be ushered into the minister’s presence
upon arrival, and by the look of him, so had Fitzpatrick.
Ryan had left his quarters at Gormanston Camp as the sky
lightened, turning from a deep bluish grey to a milky white as
he walked the short distance to the train station. Two horses
grazed in the field across from the platform, their bellies sagging,
their coats matted with neglect. They nickered to each other, the
sound carrying on the salt breeze. The Irish Sea stretched out
beyond like a black marble table.
The train had arrived late. It filled slowly with tobacco smoke
and slack-faced men as it neared Dublin, stopping at every point
of civilisation along the way. Almost all of the passengers wore
suits, whether dressed for their day’s work in some government
office, or wearing their Sunday best for a visit to the city.
Ryan also wore a suit, and he always enjoyed the occasion
to do so. A meeting with the Minister for Justice certainly warranted
the effort. He had walked south from Pearse Station to
Merrion Street and watched the director’s face as he approached.
Fitzpatrick had examined him from head-to-toe before nodding
his begrudged approval.
“Inside,” he’d said. “We don’t want to be late.”
Now Ryan checked his watch again. The minute hand ticked
over to the hour.
He’d heard the stories about the minister. A politician with
boundless ambition and the balls to back it up. The upstart had
even married the boss’s daughter, become son-in-law to the
Taoiseach, Ireland’s prime minister. Some called him a shining
star in the cabinet, a reformist kicking at the doors of the
establishment; others dismissed him as a shyster on the make.
Everyone reckoned him a chancer.
The door opened, and Charles J. Haughey entered.
“Sorry for keeping you waiting, lads,” he said as Fitzpatrick
stood. “It was sort of a late breakfast. Come on through.”
“Coffee, Minister?” the secretary asked.
Ryan got to his feet and followed Haughey and Fitzpatrick
into the minister’s office. Once inside, Haughey shook the director’s
“Is this our man Lieutenant Ryan?” he asked.
“Yes, Minister,” Fitzpatrick said.
Haughey extended his hand towards Ryan. “Jesus, you’re a big
fella, aren’t you? I’m told you did a good job against those IRA
bastards last year. Broke the fuckers’ backs, I heard.”
Ryan shook his hand, felt the hard grip, the assertion of dominance.
Haughey stood taller than his height should have allowed,
and broad, his dark hair slicked back until his head looked like
that of a hawk, his eyes hunting weakness. He had only a couple
of years seniority over Ryan, but his manner suggested an older,
worldlier man, not a young buck with a higher office than his age
“I did my best, Minister,” Ryan said.
It had been a long operation, men spending nights dug into
ditches, watching farmers come and go, noting the visitors,
sometimes following them. The Irish Republican Army’s Border
Campaign had died in 1959, its back broken long ago, but Ryan
had been tasked with making sure its corpse remained cold and
“Good,” Haughey said. “Sit down, both of you.”
They took their places in leather upholstered chairs facing
the desk. Haughey went to a filing cabinet, whistled as he fished
keys from his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and extracted a file. He
tossed it on the desk’s leather surface and sat in his own chair. It
swivelled with no hint of creak or squeak.
An Irish tricolour hung in the corner, a copy of the Proclamation
of the Irish Republic on the wall, along with pictures of racehorses,
lean and proud.
“Who made your suit?” Haughey asked.
Ryan sat silent for a few seconds before he realised the question
had been spoken in his direction. He cleared his throat and
said, “The tailor in my home town.”
“And where’s that?”
“Jesus.” Haughey snorted. “What’s your father, a pig farmer?”
“A retailer,” Ryan said.
“Yes,” Ryan said.
Haughey’s smile split his face, giving his mouth the appearance
of a lizard’s, his tongue wet and shining behind his teeth.
“Well, get yourself something decent. A man should have a
good suit. You can’t be walking around government offices with
the arse hanging out of your trousers, can you?”
Ryan did not reply.
“You’ll want to know why you’re here,” Haughey said.
“Did the director tell you anything?”
“Proper order,” Haughey said. “He can tell you now.”
Fitzpatrick went to speak, but the secretary bustled in, a tray
in her hands. The men remained silent while she poured coffee
from the pot. Ryan refused a cup.
When she’d gone, Fitzpatrick cleared his throat and turned in
his seat. “The body of a German national was found in a guesthouse
in Salthill yesterday morning by the owner. It’s believed he
died the previous day from gunshot wounds to the stomach and
head. His name was Helmut Krauss, and he had been resident in
Ireland since late 1949. The Garda Síochána were called to the
scene, but when the body’s identity was established, the matter
was referred to the Department of Justice, and then to my office.”
“Who was he?” Ryan asked.
“Here, he was Heinrich Kohl, a small businessman, nothing
more. He handled escrow for various import and export companies.
A middle man.”
“You say ‘Here’,” Ryan said. “Meaning elsewhere, he was
“Elsewhere, he was SS-Hauptsturmführer Helmut Krauss of
the Main SS Economic and Administrative Department. That
sounds rather more impressive than it was in reality. I believe he
was some sort of office worker during the Emergency.”
Government bureaucrats seldom called it the war, as if to do
so would somehow dignify the conflict that had ravaged Europe.
“A Nazi,” Ryan said.
“If you want to use such terms, then yes.”
“May I ask, why aren’t the Galway Garda Síochána dealing
with this? It sounds like a murder case. The war ended eighteen
years ago. This is a civilian crime.”
Haughey and the Fitzpatrick exchanged a glance.
“Krauss is the third foreign national to have been murdered
within a fortnight,” the director said. “Alex Renders, a Flemish
Belgian, and Johan Hambro, a Norwegian. Both of them were
nationalists who found themselves aligned with the Reich when
Germany annexed their respective countries.”
“And you assume the killings are connected?” Ryan asked.
“All three men were shot at close range. All three men were
involved to some extent in nationalist movements during the
Emergency. It’s hard not to make the logical conclusion.”
“Why were these men in Ireland?”
“Renders and Hambro were refugees following the liberation
of their countries by the Allies. Ireland has always been welcoming
to those who flee persecution.”
Fitzpatrick went to speak, but Haughey interrupted.
“This case has been taken out of the Guards’ hands as a matter
of sensitivity. These people were guests in our country, and there
are others like them, but we don’t wish to draw attention to their
presence here. Not now. This is an important year for Ireland.
The President of the United States will visit these shores in just
a few weeks. For the first time in the existence of this republic, a
head of state will make an official visit, and not just any head of
state. The bloody leader of the free world, no less. Not only that,
he’ll be coming home, to the land of his ancestors. The whole
planet will be watching us.”
Haughey’s chest seemed to swell as he spoke, as if he were
addressing some rally in his constituency.
“Like the director said, these men were refugees, and this state
offered them asylum. But even so, some people, for whatever
reason, might take exception to men like Helmut Krauss living
next door. They might make a fuss about it, the kind of fuss we
could be doing without while we’re getting ready for President
Kennedy to arrive. There’s people in America, people on his own
staff, saying coming here’s a waste of time when he’s got Castro in
his back yard, and the blacks causing a ruckus. They’re advising
him to cancel his visit. They get a sniff of trouble, they’ll start
insisting on it. So it’s vital that this be dealt with quietly. Out of
the public gaze, as it were. That’s where you come in. I want you
to get to the bottom of this. Make it stop.”
“And if I don’t wish to accept the assignment?”
Haughey’s eyes narrowed. “I must not have made myself clear,
Lieutenant. I’m not asking you to investigate this crime. I’m
“With all due respect, Minister, you don’t have the authority
to order me to do anything.”
Haughey stood, his face reddening. “Now hold on, big fella,
just who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”
Fitzpatrick raised his hands, palms up and out. “I’m sorry,
Minister, all Lieutenant Ryan means is that such an order should
come from within the command structure of the Directorate of
Intelligence. I’m sure he meant no disrespect.”
“He better not have,” Haughey said, lowering himself back
into his chair. “If he needs an order from you, then go on and
Fitzpatrick turned back to Ryan. “As the Minister said, this is
not a voluntary assignment. You will be at his disposal until the
matter is resolved.”
“All right,” Ryan said. “Are there any suspects in the killings?”
“Not as yet,” Haughey said. “But the obvious train of thought
must be Jews.”
Ryan shifted in his seat. “Minister?”
“Jewish extremists,” Haughey said. “Zionists out for revenge,
I’d say. That will be your first line of inquiry.”
Ryan considered arguing, decided against it. “Yes, minister.”
“The Guards will give assistance where needed,” the director
said. “We’d prefer that be avoided, of course. The fewer people
involved in this the better. You will also have the use of a car, and
a room at Buswells Hotel when you’re in the city.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Haughey opened the file he had taken from the cabinet.
“There’s one more thing you should be aware of.”
He lifted an envelope from the file, gripping it by its corner.
One end of it was a deep brownish red. Ryan took the envelope,
careful to avoid the stained portion. It had been cut open along
its top edge. He turned the envelope to read the words typed on
Ryan said the name aloud.
“You’ve heard of him?” Haughey asked.
“Of course,” Ryan said, remembering images of the scarred
face in the society pages of the newspapers. Any soldier versed in
commando tactics knew of Skorzeny. The name was spoken with
reverence in military circles, regardless of the Austrian’s affiliations.
Officers marvelled at Skorzeny’s exploits as if recounting
the plot of some adventure novel. The rescue of Mussolini from
the mountaintop hotel that served as his prison stirred most conversation.
The daring of it, the audacity, landing gliders on the
Gran Sasso cliff edge and sweeping Il Duce away on the wind.
Ryan slipped his fingers into the envelope and extracted the
sheet of paper, unfolded it. The red stain formed angel patterns
across the fabric of the page. He read the typewritten words.
We are coming for you.
Await our call.
“Has Skorzeny seen this?” Ryan asked.
Fitzpatrick said, “Colonel Skorzeny has been made aware of
“Colonel Skorzeny and I will be attending a function in
Malahide in a few days,” Haughey said. “You will report to us
there with your findings. The director will give you the details.
“Grand.” Haughey stood. He paused. “My tailor,” he said,
tearing a sheet from a notepad. He scribbled a name, address and
phone number. “Lawrence McClelland on Capel Street. Go and
see him, have him fit you up with something. Tell him to put it
on my account. Can’t be putting you in front of a man like Otto
Skorzeny wearing a suit like that.”
Ryan dropped the bloody envelope on the desk and took the
details from Haughey. He kept his face expressionless. “Thank
you, Minister,” he said.
Fitzpatrick ushered Ryan towards the door. As they went to
exit, Haughey called, “Is it true what I heard? That you fought
for the Brits during the Emergency?”
Ryan stopped. “Yes, Minister.”
Haughey let his gaze travel from Ryan’s shoes to his face in
one long distasteful stare. “Sort of young, weren’t you?”
“I lied about my age.”
“Hmm. I suppose that would explain your lack of judgement.”
Stuart Neville interview for Barnes & Noble
With Emily St. John Mandel
Set during the weeks leading up to President John F. Kennedy's historic 1963 visit to Ireland, Irish author Stuart Neville's new novel Ratlines addresses a sordid era in Ireland's past that includes the harboring of Nazis after World War II. In this interview author and critic Emily St. John Mandel discusses with Stuart the difficulties associated with dredging up a sensitive history.
Emily St. John Mandel: I very much enjoyed your new novel. I wonder if you'd talk a bit about the way the book came about. Ratlines is concerned in part with a disturbing fact of Irish history, which is that a large number of ex-Nazis were welcomed into the country following the Second World War. How did you come across this story, and what inspired you to use it as the basis for a new book?
Stuart Neville: I'd always been aware that some Nazis had come to Ireland after the war, but I'd assumed it was only a small number, and they'd sneaked into the country under some veil of secrecy. It wasn't until I saw a documentary by Cathal O'Shannon that I discovered not only had these Nazis and collaborators come in greater numbers than I'd imagined, they had entered Ireland with the full knowledge and agreement of the government. The Department of Justice, who were responsible for immigration and asylum seekers, had gone so far as to help some Nazis create new identities.
The more I looked into the subject, the more I felt there was a story to be found within it. I started talking to my UK editor, Geoff Mulligan, about it in the summer of 2009. He was very supportive of the idea.
EM: Researching this story must have been quite interesting. What did the research entail?
SN: It's a very different kind of research than a novel set in the present day. With a contemporary story, it's more about how things work how do you operate a particular gun, how would a crime scene be handled, how are the streets of a particular part of a city laid out? With a historical, albeit one that's not set very far in the past, it's more about how things feel, the societal realities of the time, the attitudes of the people. I was very fortunate to have a couple of people to call on who had been around Dublin in the early 60s. For example, in an early draft, I had described a female character as wearing an off-the-shoulder dress. Both of my friends flagged that up, explaining that such a dress would have been scandalous in 1963 Dublin. So it's not about dates, facts or figures; it's about much less tangible yet crucially important things.
EM: Your Irish protagonist in Ratlines, Lieutenant Albert Ryan, is looked upon with suspicion by some of his fellow citizens for having fought alongside the British in the Second World War. While someone in Ratlines makes the argument that Ireland's neutrality in that war was based in part on the country's economic situation at the time, there's also a suggestion that the Irish hatred of the British was such that fighting alongside them against Hitler's regime was unthinkable. Was that the case?
SN: It's a complex and thorny issue, and it has to be viewed in historical context. Some people, particularly Northern Irish unionists, will use wartime neutrality as a stick to beat the Irish state with, claiming that it amounted to a tacit support for Nazi Germany. That's untrue and unfair. It's important to remember that Ireland had gone through the First World War, the 1916 Uprising, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War, all in the space of a decade. Ireland simply didn't have the strength to go to war, regardless of the cause. When you add to that widespread resentment of the British, it's impossible to see a way for the Ireland's leaders to persuade the populace to take up arms alongside a country that was a mortal enemy just a few years before. Even so, something in the order of 100,000 Irish men volunteered to fight for the British Army, of which my protagonist Albert Ryan was one.
It's also worth remembering that Irish neutrality was weighted towards the Allies. For example, Axis airmen who crash landed on Irish soil were imprisoned until the end of the war, whereas Allied airmen were brought to the border with Northern Ireland and allowed to re-enter the fight.
EM: The character in Ratlines whom I found most chilling was the ex-Nazi Otto Skorzeny, and I was fascinated to discover after I read your novel that he was a real historical figure, a highly decorated Nazi officer who spent time in Ireland in the 1960s. Is there much in the way of a historical record of Skorzeny's activities in Ireland, or were you left mostly to make up details based on your knowledge of what kind of man Skorzeny was?
SN: Not a great deal is known about Skorzeny's time in Ireland outside of him being treated as a celebrity by the society pages of the newspapers; they saw him as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel character. There are a few details that I've worked into the book, like his driving a white Mercedes sports car, and having a German housekeeper who was married to a local Irishman.
A huge mythos has built up around Skorzeny in the decades since World War II, and it's difficult to untangle the truth from the fiction. In my research, I discovered that he hadn't really earned his notoriety in the war, that it had more to do with SS propaganda than any true feats of daring. He lived off that reputation for the rest of his days, encouraging the more fanciful rumors about himself. Many WW2 enthusiasts and historians have taken the tall tales as fact, which I suspect pleased Skorzeny greatly.
EM: Another of your characters is the politician Charles Haughey, also a real man. Are there special challenges in including real people in a fictional work?
SN: There are legal issues with writing about someone like Charles Haughey, so a lot of care had to be taken in how he was portrayed. The biggest challenge, though, was keeping him grounded as a character. Both he and Otto Skorzeny were larger-than-life men, and it would have been easy to slip into caricature. I had to try and capture their bravura without it becoming cartoonish.
EM: I read recently that while Skorzeny's post-war career included time spent in the Middle East trying to undermine Israel, he did eventually provide intelligence to Mossad. My understanding is that originally he agreed to work with them on condition that his name be expunged from Simon Wiesenthal's list of Nazi war criminals and the warrant for his arrest cancelled, but that he eventually decided to cooperate with Mossad even though Wiesenthal declined this request. I found this fascinating, and I wonder if, having researched Skorzeny, you have any theories on what motivated him at that pointguilt, a desire for redemption, money, something else?
SN: Again, so much of what has been written about Skorzeny is based on the fictions he wove around himself, it's hard to know what to believe. I've also read that he worked for the American government recruiting ex-Nazi rocket scientists for the space program, and as an overseer for the Werewolf paramilitary group made up of former Nazi soldiers who planned to stir up a revolution in Allied-occupied Germany. The list of exploits goes on and on, with little real evidence to support them.
As for his motivation, I think much of it must have been vanity. He seemed to revel in his own notoriety, in being an important and infamous warrior.
EM: One of the things I like about your work is the attention you pay to the long-term effects of violence; not just on those at the receiving end, but on those who perpetrate it. I'm thinking especially of the protagonist of your first novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, who is haunted in a very literal sense by the people whose deaths he brought about in his paramilitary days. As a reader and as a writer, it sometimes seems to me that reading and writing about the aftermath of violence can be more interesting than reading and writing scenes where the violence is actually taking place. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this.
SN: I take that as a compliment, so thank you! My work is often perceived as being very violent, but in reality, there isn't a huge amount of graphic violence on the page. I'll give you an example: I did a library reading for my second novel, Collusion, choosing a scene where a killer enters a house and stabs a man in the heart. A lady came up to me afterwards and said she thought the scene was terribly, shockingly violent. I pointed out to her that out of the four pages I read, there was only one sentence that actually described an act of violence. The rest was the anticipation of violence, which is much more frightening than the act itself.
I deal a lot in moral ambiguity. No one, no matter how evil they seem to us, regards themself as a villain. Everyone is the hero of their own story. That's what allows me to write from the point of view of a character like Gerry Fegan. He lives with the aftermath of his own violence very day. It's an interesting place to write about.
EM: Do you find the especially violent scenes difficult to write?
SN: From a technical point of view, writing violent action can be tricky in terms of choreography, but I don't get queasy in the process. I tend to write about the things that frighten me. As strange as it may sound, I have a terrible fear of injury even the idea of cutting my finger makes me shudder so I often describe the physical effects of violence as a way of confronting that fear. I also write about things that make me angry. When I was writing the first novel, a local news team uncovered a dogfighting club just five miles from where I lived. It made me so mad, I ended up working it into the story.
EM: Did you always know you wanted to write thrillers? I'm curious about what drew you to the genre.
SN: It's odd, because I started out trying to write horror. I wrote a novel that was supposed to be a ghost story, but the more I wrote, the more it took on thriller elements. My first three novels are in that same grey area between thriller and horror that authors like Thomas Harris and John Connolly work in. It's a product of my reading; the first “grown up” books I read as a teenager were Stephen King, but I moved towards crime writers like James Ellroy and Ted Lewis as I got older. Ratlines is the first pure thriller I've written.