Some writers write the same book over and over again, just changing the specifics in an attempt to make the work feel fresh. Let it be known, Stuart Neville is not that type of writer. Even though most of his books are part of a loosely connected series, every single book is a complete reinvention of style, tone, and purpose. Neville’s latest novel, Those We Left Behind, continues this tradition and once again proves that Neville is one of the hardest working and most talented authors you may not have heard of.
In 2009, Stuart Neville burst on to the crime fiction scene with his now-classic debut, The Twelve (re-titled The Ghosts of Belfast in the U.S.). Since that time, he has written a string of critically acclaimed novels and continues to grow a loyal and devoted audience. The beauty of his series is that while the books are connected, they are very easily read as stand-alones, so new readers can start with whichever book interests them.
Those We Left Behind is the story of Thomas and Ciaran Devine, two brothers haunted by their past as a result of struggles they never asked for. Seven years prior to the start of the novel, Ciaran confessed to killing his foster-father. Because of his confession, his older brother – who was also present at the killing– was given a lighter sentence. And yet, not all the authorities are convinced they know the truth about what happened on that particular evening.
Now that Ciaran is about to be released from his juvenile detention facility, Probation-officer Paula Cunningham is responsible for helping him to readjust to society. After witnessing the unnaturally strong hold that Thomas has over his younger brother, Paula reaches out to the original arresting officer – DCI Serena Flanagan – and is shocked to discover that Serena had similar thoughts back when the original case was investigated.
Stuart Neville uses the brotherly bond to demonstrate the dangers of putting too much trust in another person. Readers will find the scenes of bullying brutal and difficult to read, even though there is hardly any graphic content on the page. Neville is able to tap in to our visceral reaction to such abuse – eliciting both a sense of horror and sympathy for all those involved.
Of course, things are rarely as cut and dried as they appear. Paula and Serena’s new investigation will expose old wounds for everyone involved. Having these two female leads makes Those We Left Behind even more unique within the context of this series. Any readers who have ever questioned if a male author can successfully channel the female voice need only to read Those We Left Behind to be convinced.
Serena, in particular (and not the least of which because she is still recovering from her battle with breast cancer), commands the reader’s attention and allegiance. Her compassion is palpable on the page and reader’s can easily see how it may lead her astray. She is flawed and that makes her human.
Like the best in crime fiction, Those We Left Behind is less about the crime and more about how it affects the people involved. Stuart Neville demonstrates how regardless of the way someone dies, the effect on those who are left behind is universal. The human condition is a common denominator that links us all.