Serena Flanagan appeared as a supporting character in THE FINAL SILENCE (2014), and became the main character in THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND (2015). A tough but sensitive policewoman, one of Serena’s strengths in THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND was her ability to empathise with both the victims of crime and the reasons why the perpetrators grew up to become violent criminals.
In her private life, Serena is married to Alistair, and has two children, Ruth and Eli; the demands of her job often cause friction at home, with Alistair particularly worried that the violence in Serena’s professional life will find its way into their home. This fear becomes a reality when their home is invaded near the end of THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, and Alistair is stabbed whilst the children are downstairs.
As SO SAY THE FALLEN opens, Serena is struggling with another issue: five years previously, she shot dead a gunman who was pointing a gun at her; but the recent death of the gunman’s getaway driver, who survived a crash and lay in a coma for those five years, has hit her hard. Currently in therapy, Serena also finds that her home life is falling apart: Alistair suffers nightly nightmares as he relives his stabbing, and he wants her to step back from the front-line of policing to take a position in administration. Emotionally estranged from her husband, and with her children taking his part due to her irregular hours and absences from the home, Serena is suffering for the sake of her job she defines herself by:
Without the job, Flanagan thought, what do I have left?While Flanagan is the main character, much of the story is told through the eyes of the Reverend Peter McKay, a fascinatingly charismatic but vulnerable man. When we first meet him, McKay is comforting the newly widowed Roberta Garrick, but immediately we understand that McKay’s interest in Roberta is rather more than pastoral:
Her family should have been the answer. But even that seemed to be slipping beyond her reach.
Reverend Peter McKay followed [Roberta], feeling as if she dragged him by a piece of string. Conflicting desires battled within him: the desire for her body, the fear of the room beyond, the need to run. But he walked on regardless, as much by Roberta’s volition as by his own.Is it possible that this mild-mannered man of the cloth, a sensitive and thoughtful man – he is, we learn, still mourning the death of his wife a decade previously – colluded to either induce Harry Garrick to take his own life, or else helped to murder him? What we do know is that his wife’s death caused McKay to begin to lose his faith in God:
McKay seldom thought of God anymore, unless he was writing a sermon or taking a service. Reverend Peter McKay had ceased to believe in God some months ago. Everything since had been play-acting, as much out of pity for the parishioners as desire to keep his job.Faith, or its absence, is a major theme of SO SAY THE FALLEN. The Reverend McKay no longer believes in God, and serves his parishioners out of ‘pity’ for their own delusional faith in God. We quickly discover that Serena Flanagan is also a woman who lacks a faith in God:
No God. No sin. No heaven. No hell.
Reverend Peter McKay knew these things as certainly as he knew his own name.
Flanagan pictured them both, kneeling, eyes closed, mouths moving, talking to nothing but air. Stop it, she told herself. They need their belief now. Don’t belittle it.However, the theme isn’t simply devoted to exposing the consequences of an absence of faith and other religiously-inspired values. Later in the story, giving the sermon at Harry Garrick’s funeral, Reverend McKay talks about Harry’s faith:
‘Because without faith, what do we have left?’Reverend McKay’s complicated attitude towards faith and its absence is mirrored in Flanagan’s own complicated attitude towards faith. Although she professes not to believe in God, Flanagan does pray:
McKay knew the answer to that question. Nothing. Without faith, we have nothing.
If Flanagan did not believe, then why did she pray so often? She rationalised it as a form of self-talk, an internal therapy session. Wasn’t that it? Or were those Sunday mornings spent in [churches] so rooted in the bones of her that deep down she believed this nonsense, even if her higher mind disagreed?At one point, when Reverend McKay is contemplating taking his own life by drowning himself at a remote beach, he is offered solace by another minister:
‘Chaos or faith,’ she said. ‘It’s one or the other. I know which I prefer.’Flanagan empathises with Peter McKay’s plight; they both have much in common, including their absence of faith. Both of them also define themselves according to their professions, or vocations. At Harry Garrick’s funeral, when the Reverend McKay asks ‘Without faith, what do we have left?’, Serena finds herself agonising over her family:
‘It’s not a matter of preference,’ McKay said […] ‘It’s a matter of reality. What’s real and what’s just a story to cling to.’
Without the job, Flanagan thought, what do I have left? […]Serena and McKay talk about the difficulty of separating their personal lives from their professional lives, and the extent to which their jobs aren’t simply jobs, but vocations which require sacrifice. McKay tells Serena:
Oh God, what do I have left?
I am my job. I am my children. What am I without them?
‘Then you are your job, your job is you. Same for me.’Significantly, Serena explains to her family why her job is so important – not just to her, but because it’s an important job, and people depend on her to see justice done. In this, and much else, Serena Flanagan is emblematic of the strong female protagonists who have come to define crime and mystery fiction over the last decade or so, most notably in Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2008), Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL (2012) and Paula Hawkins’ THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2015).
‘And I am my family. I need them, even if they don’t need me.’
His fingers tightened on her wrist, a small pressure. ‘Then the answer lies somewhere between the two. It’s like two sides of an arch. One can’t stand without the other.’
Not all the women characters are positive role models, however. Roberta Garrick is a classic femme fatale, a throwback to the deliciously dark days of noir:
She still wore her silk dressing gown over her nightdress, red hair spilling across her shoulders. A good-looking woman, mid-thirties. If not beautiful, then at least the kind to make men look twice. The kind teenage boys whispered to each other about, tinder for their adolescent fires.Roberta is duplicitous, manipulative, physically aggressive and more than willing to use sex in order to achieve her aims. She is a predator, a sociopath who preys on ‘weak’ men – men ‘weakened’ by their lust for her – in order to gain financial independence. Ultimately we get Roberta’s philosophy on life, a sociopathic amorality that is the purest essence of noir’s classic femme fatales: “Life becomes so much easier when you let go of right and wrong.”
The clash between Roberta’s amorality and Flanagan and McKay’s yearning for certainty provides a fascinating subtext to a novel that is a richly nuanced exploration of faith and vocation. SO SAY THE FALLEN is Stuart Neville’s seventh novel, and he becomes a more sophisticated, intriguing and subtly provocative author with each passing book. ~ Declan Burke
SO SAY THE FALLEN is published by Soho Crime.