THE CITY OF SHADOWS by MICHAEL RUSSELL : a review

THE CITY OF SHADOWS

AUTHOR: MICHAEL RUSSELL

AVON 468 pages €11.50, ebook €8.46

This debut novel is a superb atmospheric thriller, set for the most part in the Dublin of the 1930’s, but also featuring Danzig and the struggle between the Nazis and Sean Lester, the (Irish) League of Nations representative in the city. The author, a TV script writer and producer (Emmerdale Farm, Touch of Frost) now living in Ireland, has brought his skills to produce a page turner of high quality.

The story opens with the Phoenix Park Mass during the 1932 Eucharistic Congress and a murder which follows it. The scene then shifts to 1934 and a raid on an abortion clinic catering for the rich and powerful, where the hero, Detective Sergeant Stefan Gillespie, encounters a young Jewish Dubliner, Hannah Rosen, seeking information on her friend, who disappeared after an affair with a Catholic priest.

Later two bodies are found buried in the Dublin mountains, and, as the plot unfolds, Stefan and Hannah find themselves in a Danzig where the Nazis are poised to seize power.

There are particularly evocative portrayals of Dublin in the 1930s, from the Congress Mass with McCormack singing, to the Jewish community and shops around Clanbrassil Street, from the swans on the Grand canal to the streets from Westland Row to Grafton St. and around Stephen’s Green. The rural setting around Baltinglass is also well portrayed. The story imparts superbly the sense of place and local geography of the time, with the historical context particularly thoroughly researched.

It’s all there: De Valera’s rise, Eoin O’Duffy and the Blue Shirts, the Broy Harriers, the reminder that the civil war was in the very recent past and that violence still lurks in the shadows. The all-powerful Catholic church, with a visit to a Magdalen laundry, and the flaunting of the Ne Temere decree as well as the flirting with fascism among some Catholics are accurately portrayed as are the covert gay scene and the cupboard skeletons of many.

The book is populated by a marvellous set of characters, from the fictional hero and heroine, through Gardai, members of the Special Branch, the clergy and ordinary people straight and gay. These are interwoven cleverly with real characters of the era. The sinister figure of Adolf Mahr, Director of the National Museum and Gauleiter of the Nazi Party in Ireland, is memorably drawn as are Garda Commissioner Eamon Broy, and Michael Mac Liammoir, brilliantly described as “ an actor who gave his life’s greatest performance as an Englishman triumphantly playing an Irishman.”

There are equally fine portraits of Sean Lester, the Irish diplomat who became the League of Nations High Commissioner in Danzig in 1933 where he fought almost single handedly against Nazi persecution and discrimination against the Jews, before being eventually forced out, and his solitary ally, Bishop Edward O Rourke, a Russian Count of Wild Geese extraction. Both play a significant (fictional) role in the story.

There are hints from the author that there will be sequels involving Stefan Gillespie. On the basis of this they will be eagerly awaited. Highly recommended.

February 2013

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