I have to admit to being a little in awe of Stuart Neville. His 2009 debut The Twelve, a nuanced and powerfully written novel about The Troubles, was lauded by critics and readers alike. The follow up Collusion was if anything more harrowing, a modern revenge tragedy, ambitious in scope and stylishly executed, but Stolen Souls sees Neville putting the politics aside to move into classic crime fiction territory.
Like tens of thousands of young women before her Gayla Petrova believes she can make a better life in the UK, work hard as a nanny, send money home to educate her brother. The reality she finds in Belfast is very different, a brief stint on a mushroom farm followed, inevitably, by relocation to a suburban brothel. The usual process – in life as in fiction – of abuse then acquiescence is not for Gayla though. She’s tougher than the others and when it comes time for the break-in round she fights back, cutting the throat of her would-be rapist.
Unfortunately for Gayla Tomas isn’t some random client but part of the international people trafficking operation which has brought her to Belfast. In the ensuing chaos, as his associates try to dump his body and distance themselves from the murder, Gayla runs. She only knows one person in this strange city, a man who has given her a cross and his phone number and promised to help her if she ever manages to escape. He is no good Samaritan though, even if he claims to be a pastor, and soon Gayla is imprisoned in an isolated house with patchy concrete in the basement and a Grand Guignol surprise waiting upstairs.
On the outside DI Jack Lennon is pitched into what appears to be an escalating turf war, with bodies piling up as Tomas’ family try track down Gayla – his mama wants revenge for her boy at any costs and they have the connections to get it. Lennon just wants to spend christmas with his little girl but with Lithuanian gangsters, bent coppers and a ghost from his past closing in on him getting home begins to look increasingly unlikely.
In lesser hands Stolen Souls could have been just another cheap serial killer novel in a market already overstocked with them, but Stuart Neville is an outstanding writer. There is no slack anywhere in this book, not a wasted word or a single line of dialogue which jars; it is technically flawless. Gayla Petrova is a fabulous heroine – definitely not a victim – all steel and cold logic, acting the way we hope we would in that situation. In a genre dominated by fey child-women who die obligingly picturesque deaths she is a real original and a credit to Neville’s skills.
Stolen Souls is a brutalising read, the pace is unrelenting and the guts of the story so close to reality that there’s no shaking off the horror when you’re done with it. If you’ve read Stuart Neville before then you know he brings it dark, if this is your first time with him you better brace yourself.