The first two pages of Stuart Neville’s new Irish crime novel paint a chilling scene: Two brothers, 12 and 14 years old, are covered in blood and wrapped in each others arms as they listen to approaching police sirens. They know the police will soon witness a brutal murder scene. The brief prologue sets up not only the novel’s main crime, but also the brothers’ dangerous dependence on one another. Their powerful, emotional unity fuels the tension and smartly keeps us off guard.
Seven years later, Ciaran Devine, the younger brother, makes headlines in Northern Ireland’s newspapers as the “schoolboy killer” being released from jail. He served time for the murder of his foster father in that disturbing opening scene, having confessed to the crime. Thomas, the older brother, served less jail time as an accessory and has waited two years for Ciaran’s release. Ciaran’s probation officer, Paula Cunningham, is advised to allow Ciaran to see Thomas as soon as possible because “Thomas always seems to put Ciaran back on track.”
The brothers’ renewed togetherness feels edgy and suspicious, especially for Cunningham as she works to integrate Ciaran back into society. There’s an overarching question about which brother actually committed the crime, heightening her concerns. DCI Serena Flanagan, the only officer who was able to communicate with the frightened 12-year-old Ciaran, believes he confessed to protect his older brother. Daniel Rolston, the son of the murdered man, also doubts the law punished the right boy.
Rolston further unsettles an already disturbing situation by stalking the newly freed Ciaran and accosting Cunningham, all the while causing disturbances at his workplace. He seems mentally off kilter and acts beyond the law, driven by his obsession for truth. Meanwhile, Flanagan behaves inappropriately with Ciaran to get him to tell the truth about his confession, and Thomas is getting angry at the way Rolston, Cunningham and Flanagan are meddling with his brother’s past.
Even when the big question about the confession gets answered, author Stuart Neville doesn’t give us relief. He holds us in fearful limbo over the brothers’ intentions, which increasingly become deadly. I kept wondering how far the depraved Thomas would go to keep Ciaran and himself together and isolated from the world that doesn’t understand them. Cunningham and Flanagan become targets on his protective radar screen, creating nerve-wracking moments, especially given Neville’s sympathetic characterization of Flanagan.
Scenes in Those We Left Behind work together with flawless, syncopated dark magic and genuinely evoked characters; however, there are a few, insignificant hiccups: In one situation, a search team overlooks what would appear to be an obvious clue; in another, police protection at the house of Cunningham isn’t offered and that feels like an oversight; in another, no usage of cell phones feels odd. These are small pebbles, though, and not boulders impeding the emotionally charged fluency of action.
I’m always apprehensive nearing the end of crime novels and mysteries that have successfully seduced me. I get concerned the edge-of-the-seat questions will be wrapped up too simply, with the author throwing down a sigh of relief and a detective’s stamp of completion. That’s not the case with Those We Left Behind, which stays in the upper levels of intensity that drive the best of its genre. The story retains its creepiness, rooted in the sibling dependence, to the very end, with a movie-worthy final scene taking place beside the Irish Sea.
Those We Left Behind is Stuart Neville’s sixth crime/mystery novel. It’s being described as the first in a series that will follow DCI Serena Flanagan.