A magnificent short story collection by Stuart Neville.
Being one of the most prolific modern Irish crime authors, Stuart Neville delivers a suberb collection of short stories featuring all the elements that made his writing style one of the most alluring among his contemporaries. There are thirteen stories in total, including one novella that's never been published elsewhere, the titular Traveller, which concludes the book and extends the story of one of the most beloved protagonists, ex-cop Jack Lennon who is now retired from the force and lives along with his daughter in a little village. The Traveller picks up the story after the events of the fourth novel of the "Jack Lennon Investigates", The Final Silence, and narrates the relentless hunt carried out by a contract killer nicknamed "The Traveller" who tracks down Jack and is dead set on exacting revenge from the man that left him for dead a long time ago. The plot is tight and the readers who are familiar with the main characters will have a field day as the novella offers a dignified closure of their personal stories and the finale is explosive enough to satisfy even the most hardcore fans of Neville's work. Of course, the story can be read by those who are oblivious of the author's previous novels, nevertheless it would be nice if you checked out the previous installments first.
Apart from the final novella, the collection features twelve more short stories that contain all the elements that a loyal crime fiction fan wishes to encounter when reading a high-quality book of the genre. There are stories involving the supernatural aspect, straightforward mystery tales, and depressing, grim narrations that will make your heart clench. In his brief foreword note, Neville names Stephen King as one of his most prominent influences and in the first part of the collection, titled "New Monsters", his impact is evident as we read some trully distressing stories, heavily reminicent of those written by the American superstar horror writer in his collection Night Shift. "Coming in on Time", "The Green Lady", and "Echo" are all dismal narratives recounting the lives of broken characters who carry a heavy burden from their past and struggle to survive in a world that no longer makes any sense to them. I found those stories hard to read as there is like a black veil shading the action and I also thought that the protagonists, no matter how tormented and disturbed, are hard to identify with. In fact, after reading the first part of the book, I was wondering if I made the right choice giving it a chance as it seemed to stir a series of gloomy emotions in my soul and there were times I fealt almost repulsed by the characters' tragic fate.
Nevertheless, I had to acknowledge Neville's poweful prose that grabs the reader by the throat and forces him to take a glimpse into the darkest corners of the human mind. No matter how bleak the actual stories were, the writing style is such that enchants the reader and makes him turn the pages in order to discover what the author has in store for him. "London Safe", "The Night Hag", and "Black Beauty" continue in the same vein, even though the stories become a little bit more intriguing and less bleak. The author focuses on dysfunctional family relationships and the thirst for vengeance as the protagonists in the aforementioned short stories strive to restore the lost balance in their lives through the means of violence. "The Night Hag" can also be read as a typical ghost story as it revolves as it is inspired by the combination of a phenomenon called sleep paralysis, something that the author himself states that he has experienced repeatedly, and a fable that wants a creature of the night visiting humans in their sleep and torturing them through various means. "Black Beauty" is the shortest story in the collection and it's about a father exacting revenge from the youngster who stole his son's guitar and sent him to hospital. It's so impressive to read a story no more than two pages long that is so beguiling and complete, illustrating the author's talent and craftsmanship.
In the second part, "Old Friends", Neville revisits some of his old characters who have appeared in his previous novels. Gerry Fegan, Albert Ryan, and Celia Hume are some of the well-known Neville's fictional creations that are featured in the five short stories that comprise the second part of this short story collection. In the first one, "Followers", we meet Gerry Fegan who is haunted by the people who killed during his early rise as a criminal and political activist. Gerry is drinking alone in a bar feeling the eyes of his victims burning in his back. It's a story about regret and redemption and in the end Gerry finds a way to atone for his past sins. Fegan is also one of the main characters in two more stories, "The Last Dance" and "The Catastrophist" while he also makes a brief appearance in "The Traveller". In the "Craftsman", Albert Ryan and his wife Celia, share a dark secret that is about to be exposed due to Celia's illness that makes her spill the beans to her doctor. Albert will have to take action and protect himself and his family in any possible means. "Faith" is a story about the downfall of a priest whose belief is shaken to the core when he falls in love with the wrong man. "Old Friends" differs from the first part in terms of mood and tone and is closer to the more typical crime fiction spirit. There are dubious characters, cold-blooded killings, gangster feuds and themes most often associated with the works of the genre. The discrepancy between the two parts makes the collection all the more enticing and adds to the charm of the text.
Keep in mind that there is also an introduction by another acclaimed Irish author, John Connolly, who was one of the first to read Neville's debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, when it was nothing more than an unpublished manuscript and first appreciated the unique potential of the text. Connolly writes about this collection: "Here are monsters, both human and non-human. Here are hauntings, real or imagined. Here are old friends and older friends. Here is the work of a prodigiously talented writer, one who has more than fulfilled the promise of his first book". His words are the best preface for this exquisite book which is recommended to fans of Celtic noir as well as those who are fond the short story structure that often acts as the most appropriate narrative vessel for a crime story to be told. It would be nice if you checked out the author's debut in order to be able to fully fathom the depth of his prose and become familiar with some of the characters appearing on the pages of this collection.