THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND by STUART NEVILLE (2015, Vintage, 362pp) ∗∗∗½
Blurb: When 12-year-old Ciaran Devine confessed to murdering his foster father it sent shock waves through the nation. DCI Serena Flanagan, then an ambitious Detective Sergeant, took Ciaran’s confession after days spent earning his trust. He hasn’t forgotten the kindness she showed him – in fact, she hasn’t left his thoughts in the seven years he’s been locked away. Probation officer Paula Cunningham, now tasked with helping Ciaran re-enter society, suspects there was more to this case than the police uncovered. Ciaran’s confession saved his brother Thomas from a far lengthier sentence, and Cunningham can see the unnatural hold Thomas still has over his vulnerable younger brother. When she brings her fears to DCI Flanagan, the years of lies begin to unravel, setting a deadly chain of events in motion.
Stuart Neville’s sixth novel focuses on a new lead character, DCI Serena Flanagan, who made her first appearance in a supporting role in Neville’s previous book, THE FINAL SILENCE. Flanagan is a driven character, but also a wife and mother, who has recently recovered from breast cancer surgery. This element of her life links into a sub-plot about the tragic killing of a friend who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. This sub-plot is primarily designed to draw the reader into believing that Flangan’s instinctive approach to detection is accurate and sets her apart from her colleagues as the rest of this particular scenario is played out rather disappointingly.
The main plot, concerning the release of juvenile murderers Thomas and Ciaran Devine, is a fairly straight-forward psychological thriller. Flanagan’s approach in gaining Ciaran’s confidence by playing on the teenager’s crush on her leads to tensions with colleagues in her department. The author highlights Flanagan’s sexual rejection by her husband, following her surgery and contrasts this with her confused feelings for the handsome, but disturbed young man. Flanagan’s exploitation of Ciaran in an attempt to find the truth about a pair of murders – one historic and one present – adds some electricity to an otherwise predictable story. Thomas’ manipulation of his younger brother is well observed and, as ever, Neville’s writing is never less than absorbing.
In its final chapters the story adopts a more conventional approach with the brothers invading Flanagan’s home and then later the resultant manhunt and its ultimate resolution. Neville smartly quickens the pace by shortening his chapters and sentences whilst making effective use of the cliffhanger to keep the reader turning the pages.
THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, then is an exciting, if predictable, read that confirms Neville as one of the strongest crime fiction writers around. He is to continue using Flanagan as his main character in the follow-up SO SAY THE FALLEN. She is an interesting character and will undoubtedly develop in Neville’ capable hands.