Fresh Blood

Name: Michael Russell

Title of Book: The City of Shadows

'This is a sterling debut not to be rushed, but to be savoured.'

It is 1934 and in Dublin a German doctor is arrested by Stefan Gillespie for performing illegal abortions. At the doctors clinic Gillespie meets a young woman called Hannah Rosen who he mistakenly believes is there to have an abortion, but Hannah is there for a totally different reason. Taking her back to the station Gillespie is soon told that the doctor and Rosen have been released by Special Branch. What is their interest in the German and why has he been released? Finding the woman at the local Magdalene laundry, Gillespie hears Hannah’s story about her friend, Helen Field who went to the clinic for a termination six months previously and hasn’t been seen since. The father was evidently a priest Helen had met during her studies.

It is soon after that two bodies are discovered in the Dublin mountainside and this leads Gillespie across Europe to Danzig to find Hannah and to also discover the truth about the two bodies and how they came to be murdered and disposed of in such a manner. But Danzig is in the grip of the Nazis and the situation is getting more and more critical – especially for a Jewess like Hannah trying to find her friends old lover. Many more people will die before Hannah and Stefan discover the truth and escape from the Gestapo and other enemies before they too lose their lives.

‘The City of Shadows’ is a sumptuous novel. It is a rich, luxurious novel that cannot be rushed. Russell with great story-telling brings to life Ireland 1934. Russell enjoys showing an idyllic Ireland but also doesn’t flinch when flipping the coin and showing Dublin’s darker side, most of which comes from the most surprising and unlikely quarters of society. Russell chillingly describes horrific scenarios from bloodthirsty Blueshirts attacking a well-known gay public house to a foreign country almost in the grip of Nazism to a Catholic priest’s serpentine insinuations that affect Stefan’s private life.

There have been plenty of recent scandals involving Ireland and the Catholic church that appear to have broken irreparably the huge trust that had once held priest and congregation together. Here Russell tells a very chilling one about how easy it was back then for the Catholic church to weald such power to take away children from their parents on the basis of their faith. Russell obviously has steeped himself in history and brings that to the novel, however sometimes Russell does get carried away when setting the scene and recounting history which did inhibit the main thrust of the story and I would suggest that less is more: but that is my only negative.

Russell weaves a beautifully rich tapestry that shows through the taste and texture of his words the rich lusciousness of the Emerald Isle alongside the grimy streets of Dublin and the infected avenues of Danzig as Nazism rears its ugly head. ‘The City of Shadows’ is a panoramic epic pitting man against man, faith against faith. This is a sterling debut not to be rushed, but to be savoured.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What made you decide to write a crime novel?
I’ve spent a lot of my life writing about crime for television, from ‘The Bill’, to ‘Between the Lines’, to ‘Midsomer Murder’ and ‘A Touch of Frost’, and even an adaptation of someone else’s crime novel, in P D James’s ‘A Certain Justice’. But there were always things you couldn’t do, places you couldn’t go; there was always a bit less than you wanted, in terms of telling stories. But why write crime rather than, say, romantic comedy? Again it’s story. A genre in which there are always stories, real, page-turning, tangible stories doing the driving, is irresistible. They don’t have to be hard-boiled or blood-curdling or limb-ripping (well, maybe at times!), but there is a pace you get, when the stories drive the characters and the characters drive the stories, back and forth, like grand slam tennis, that is not like anything else, however good, for sheer energy, whether the writer is Raymond Chandler or Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, John Buchan or Chester Himes. And with luck and a fair wind, the rest of us can at least tuck in behind them!
2) You evoke a wonderful sense of place in the novel. How important is setting to you in your writing?
Place is hugely important, but it’s hard to say why, without sounding like a pompous eejit. One of the great loves I have always had has been the writing of Thomas Hardy. My grandfather, who lived in Dorset, used to take me around as a child and show me bits of empty Dorset heathland and piles of stone and, occasionally, a dingy pub, and tell me what had happened there in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ or ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. When I read the books I loved the way place and events were an inseparable part of the storytelling. A good friend once said that ‘Hardy’s novels would be all right if you took out all those boring descriptions’. I think he had missed the point! I don’t really know what the sense of place does in ‘The City of Shadows’, except that I think the story would be poorer without it. Maybe we live in a time when we have all lost touch with our sense of place to some extent, and it’s just enjoyable writing about a time when people still had it. It’s also the fact that there are great places out there! Just the way in telling a story you’re always saying, ‘Hey, look at this’, I guess I’m saying the same about places too, whether it’s the Wicklow Mountains, or Dublin, or Danzig/Gdańsk.
3) All the chapter titles are of places in and surrounding Dublin and Danzig. Why did you decide to do this?
Place names and street names have a kind of cold, bland tone to them; like a list of addresses. It doesn’t have any meaning. I liked the fact that despite this, when you add everything that’s happening in all these places, the names start to carry that with them. It’s not the grim resonance of, say, ’10 Rillington Place’, just the idea that every ordinary place sees things that are by no means ordinary. In Irish history that’s an important thing, and place names seem to have a greater resonance for some reason, more than in the UK or elsewhere. Maybe it’s to do with the smallness of scale. There is also the sense that even in the midst of danger, what a detective does is still to plod through the detail, a litany of detail. I also liked the fact that there is a physical journey, and there’s a way that the map-like place names emphasise that.
4) You seem to love Dublin although you also show its darker side. Do you have a connection to the place?
My grandmother came from Donegal, and Ireland was an important part of my childhood in England. There is something visceral about my relationship with it. Allen Garner, writing about Alderley Edge in Cheshire, said something about places where the past seems to come up at you through the floorboards, and you just know them. I think it’s a bit like that. And Dublin in the 1930’s was a place I found, as I started writing, that I knew better than I thought. Although my grandmother lived most of her life in England, in many ways she never really left Ireland. On her mantelpiece were two pictures among the family photos; of President Éamon de Valera and of the Sacred Heart. On Sundays she read not only the News of the World but the Irish Press, from cover to cover. The stories she told me as a child were all about war and mayhem in Ireland, during the War of Independence and the Civil War. They were a great deal bloodier (and therefore much better) than the stories anybody else’s grandmother told! Sometimes the streets Stefan Gillespie walks seemed oddly familiar. So the connections there are, are both past and present. And while writing about places I love has not been the reason for writing this book, it has been one of the great pleasures of doing it.
5) The story is set in 1934. What made you choose this particular time in history?
What fascinated me, living in Ireland now, was the peculiar position Ireland had during the Second World War. It was ostensibly, even aggressively, neutral (if you can be aggressively neutral?). Yet when German pilots crashed in Ireland they were interned for the duration of the war; Allied airman were given a pint of Guinness and put on the next train to Belfast. Ireland maintained an embassy in Berlin throughout the conflict, and Germany had an embassy in Dublin, but on the west coast of Ireland flying boats shuttled Allied and American generals and diplomats back and forward across the Atlantic to plan the war. For most Irish people ‘keeping out of it’ was the first concern, yet large numbers of Irishmen went to fight in the British forces, while a small number believed that German victory would mean real Irish freedom. Throughout the war British and German diplomats spied on each other and drank at adjacent tables in the bar at the Shelbourne Hotel. Before the war the German director of the National Museum really was a Nazi Gauleiter and spy.
6) The plot deals with a missing woman who was on her way to have an abortion. Without getting too political, do you feel that Ireland has progressed in any way with abortion in light of recent events?
Ireland is such a different place to what it was in 1934 that it is hard to begin to list the differences. The influence of the Catholic Church has declined immensely, even in the time I have lived here. And yet the vestiges of earlier times remain in Ireland in ways that they don’t almost anywhere else in Europe. One reason is the way history has made Catholicism in Ireland and Irish Nationalism overlap, even though they sometimes didn’t in reality. Even today, the ‘Catholic community’ and the ‘Nationalist community’ are interchangeable terms for most journalists talking about Northern Ireland, though the terms are by no means a perfect fit. The issue of abortion is one of the few remaining areas of Irish life where belief still profoundly influences the way people think, and that has its roots in the Church of course, but the same divisions exist elsewhere without that – look at America. In many ways it’s something that Ireland has simply chosen not to deal with – a trip across the Irish Sea was easier. I doubt it can be shoved aside in that way any more and, perhaps for the first time, a majority of people seem not to want it to be.
7) You have been a scriptwriter for many years, scripting for such shows like ‘Midsomer Murders’ and ‘A Touch of Frost’. How different was the writing process when you wrote ‘The City of Shadows’?
When I first started in television, as a script editor on the then very un-criminally-oriented ‘Emmerdale Farm’, when the theft of Christmas trees was a big event (soap opera has fallen in love with murder since then of course!), we used to have a Matt-like cartoon in the office that said: ‘I prefer the Archers to Emmerdale – the pictures are better’. I think in a way I wanted to write a crime novel, instead of crime screenplays, because ‘the pictures are better’, especially when what I wanted to write was historical fiction. The main difference is really more freedom, to go deeper and to have fun! In television and film there are usually four script editors, three producers, eleven executive producers and several network executives (that’s before you get to the actors) to tell you what they want in your script. Suddenly they’ve gone!
8) I was very surprised to read that the Nazi movement was tolerated in Ireland before the Second World War. Is this fact and if so, how do you feel this fact has echoed in Ireland’s history?
We probably all forget that the Nazi movement was tolerated, even admired, in all sorts of places before the war. The idea that ‘Democracy is dead’ and that authoritarian regimes of one kind or another were the only answer to the economic chaos that had enveloped the world in the 1930’s, was widespread. For some people the authoritarian regime was communist, for others fascist, but the end results were oddly similar – concentration camps and gulags. We forget how close Britain was to allowing Hitler to invade Poland and how close it was, in 1940, to making peace on the basis that Britain had its Empire and Hitler had free rein in Europe (especially Eastern Europe). When the war started the lengths Éamon de Valera went to, to maintain Irish neutrality were sometimes as much about performance as reality. Irish neutrality was very one-sided – on the side of the Allies, but it wasn’t good politics to make that obvious. Ireland put its own interests first, and it’s hard to argue that every other country wasn’t doing the same thing. At the same time those Republicans (the IRA) who really did support Germany, on the basis that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity, pursued a course that asked moral and ethical questions that in many ways remain unanswered. The way Irish soldiers, sailors and airmen who joined the British forces to fight Nazism were treated when they came home is a serious blot on our history. In the end Ireland’s democratic instincts were surprisingly strong, but not everyone feels that standing aside from the war did Ireland good; it is as if it placed us slightly outside history at a time when perhaps ‘where you stood’ mattered more than who your old enemies were. But de Valera didn’t have the luxury of hindsight.
9) What are your plans for your next novel?
In the next novel, ‘The City of Strangers’, Stefan Gillespie will find himself in New York, on the eve of the Second World War. Simply there to escort a murder suspect back to Ireland, he finds himself caught up in the activities of the IRA, corrupt New York policemen, Jewish mobster Longie Zwillman, the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, and a bomb plot at the World’s Fair that may or may not have something to do with the fact that King George VI is in Canada… and is about to pay the first ever royal visit to the United States… And as before real events and real personalities will play an important part.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
Honesty in this area won’t make for originality. On different days a longer list would change according to mood, but these three would always be at the top.

First have to come the Sherlock Holmes stories. I started reading them when I was eleven or twelve probably, and they have stayed with me ever since. I’m sure every crime writer says the same thing. And, well, why wouldn’t they?

Second is Raymond Chandler. There’s nothing like him, though Chandler’s writing has influenced every crime writer since. He is simply a great writer. His stories are wonderful, his characters extraordinary, and he also creates a very powerful sense of place; but above all he simply writes better than anybody.

Third is probably John Buchan. Admittedly a man who would never count too many coincidences if they led to a good story, but no one put together crime, espionage and the ripping yarn better than him. His stories always involve journeys, and it’s only now that I say it that I realise that’s stuck with me too.