Michael Russell is a man who brings a lot of experience to the table in his utterly brilliant debut novel The City of Shadows. After reading English at Oxford, Michael joined Yorkshire Television as a Script Editor on Emmerdale Farm, where he became Series Producer. He also spent several years in the Drama Department at ITV, first as Script Consultant, then Producer, before leaving to write full-time. A regular contributor to Midsomer Murders, he recently scripted the last ever episodes of A Touch of Frost which topped the TV ratings.
Earlier this week, I put the kettle on, baked scones, and eagerly awaited Michael’s visit to our mountain abode. The first question I put to him, was why novel writing, and why now? “There were a couple of reasons,” he explained, “one is that I’m too old to leave it much longer, to put off what I’ve always wanted to do, having found myself like many others, doing a lot of things in life because I needed to earn a living. When I started working in television, I did so because I wanted to write, not necessarily television scripts and screenplays, but I wanted to do a job where in some way I earned my living as a writer – and the first job offered to me was that of script editor, leading me into all sorts of things, and ultimately becoming a television producer. One day, I had to stop and say, I started doing this because I wanted to write, and now I’m sitting talking to accountants about budgets. So I stopped, and sort of retrenched my position, deciding to write scripts and not doing the rest of the stuff. I suppose it was risky. Then a few years ago, I started thinking about the things I really wanted to do, like writing novels. It so happened that I was approached by Parallel Films about writing a film, a kind of detective fiction set during the Emergency. I sketched out some ideas, which was very close to what I ended up writing as the novel, and as with most things you do for film companies, nothing ever happens. But the idea of Ireland at that particular time fascinated me, historically, along with my love for detective fiction. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt it was a novel and not a film.”
And Russell certainly lands the reader firmly in 1930’s Ireland, exploring controversial territory, religion, democracy, fascism, communism, the rise of Nazism, those considered outsiders of the Free State, murder, abortion, the rural/city divide, and a whole lot more besides. This is a period of history that dug its claws into Russell, and would not let go. He told me, “This time has been a lifelong interest. Having lived in Ireland for 15 years, and knowing quite a lot about the Emergency, and what happened in Ireland during that period, I became more and more drawn to it. What I liked about it in terms of the 2nd World War, which for good reasons is written about a lot, is that Ireland presented a quirky sideways look at things that you don’t get anywhere else. But it was more than that; it goes back to a more personal thing. My grandmother, who lived in England for most of her adult life, used to tell me stories as a kid about the Black and Tans, the murders, and the Thompson machine guns firing across the square. I remember one story in particular, of how there was this gun battle where a priest was called to give the last rights to a man on the other side of the town square, with a battle going on between the blacks and tans and the shinners. The priest walked across to the man whilst holding the host and not a bullet touched him. When I began The City of Shadows, I suppose the personal connection didn’t occur to me initially, but when I started writing about Dublin, it genuinely felt like I knew the place in an odd sort of way that I wouldn’t have expected, and I think that came from my grandmother, who not only lived in Dublin, but Armagh, and Belfast – it’s like the streets felt strangely familiar.”
If you read The City of Shadows, and I strongly recommend that you do, you will be immersed in the complex world of Stefan Gillespie, a character Russell explains arrived unlike any other character. Funnily enough, he says, “he came from a conversation I had with Tim Palmer, who was then at Parallel Films. I wrote just a few pages and Stefan was immediately there in a way that I wouldn’t normally write. He just kind of emerged and the idea, which was actually quite accurate for members of the Garda Siochana at the time, of coming from a country background, made me think, the world needs a detective who can milk a cow!”
You can’t really discuss Stefan Gillespie without touching on the engaging, exotic, and at times intoxicating Hannah Rosen, Stefan’s dark eyed acushla. It was a strange combination, these two characters crossing paths, almost as if destiny deemed it to be, but with a destiny governed by the macro picture, and one which held the ultimate power. Speaking about the relationship between Detective Stefan Gillespie and Hannah Rosen, Russell says he wanted to create a sense of both of them being outsiders, each a different kind of minority, and what he wanted in particular about Hannah, was for her to be a woman who did what someone of her background might do at that period in history, which was to leave Ireland to do something else, but who was actually not capable of shaking off the fact that she was Irish.
Speaking bluntly and honestly, Russell went on to say, “I suppose there was the sense, far more than let’s say Irish Protestants, that at that time, Jews wouldn’t have been considered in some circles to be Irish at all -Protestants were almost Irish, but Jews were not. The other thing was that Hannah was involved with events happening in the world outside. She looks at what’s happening in Europe, and in the end, makes her decisions based on things that aren’t personal, determined to lead her life in a certain way, whilst a lot of personal things want to stop her doing just that. I think there is a point at which their relationship becomes a casualty of something bigger, and on some level, both Stefan and Hannah know that.”
There was one particular quote in the novel where Stefan’s young son, Tom speaks about the swastika flag, saying – ‘I like their flag, don’t you Daddy?’ It’s written with the innocence of a child’s viewpoint, but actually, it seemed to reflect the viewpoint of many at the time, who didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. Talking to Russell about the notion that Ireland flirted with fascism at the time, he says, “It’s wasn’t a particularly Irish thing, it was happening everywhere, and in Britain, there were plenty of people who would rather have had an alliance with Hitler than fight a war against him. Funnily enough, I read something the other day, and, it was an idea that I was aware of when writing The City of Shadows, and one quite common in the 30s, that democracy has failed, and therefore we need strong leadership, and a different system Back then, it was two different systems, fascism and communism, and they both seemed to end up with concentration camps of one kind or another. One of the problems with writing anything historical, is that you’ve got to be very careful your characters don’t already know what’s going to happen, and although Nazism was extremely unpleasant, and there was already plenty of evidence of that, it’s not the case that people had the knowledge they subsequently learned, so therefore as the writer you have to look at it slightly differently. The association with the swastika flag was important too, and the incident in Chapter 2 came from an old photograph of a tricolour and a swastika flag hanging outside a Dublin hotel, the party held there was reported in the Irish Times as a great party, one for the German community. There were plenty of people who thought, again referring to an old photograph of a branch of Hitler Youth, formed by the German community in Ireland, that they were polite, they were disciplined and in the case of the Hitler Youth on that particular occasion, sang rather nicely.”
One of the most mesmerising chapters in The City of Shadows is the opening one, and speaking about the distinctive tone and rhythm within it, I was surprised to hear that when Russell first outlined the novel, this chapter wasn’t there. However, he knew he needed a second murder, and when he started to think about how the murder happened, he felt he wanted something that gave a particular atmosphere, one that would stay with the reader, setting a tone that wasn’t quite the same as the rest of the narrative – well at least, it certainly did for me.
It seems part of the appeal of this historical timeframe for Russell, was that it was both complicated and fascinating, and a part of our history that we don’t know enough about. Speaking about his own children studying the rise of fascism and the 2nd World War at school, he says after a year, it’s extraordinary to think that they don’t know where Danzig is, and they don’t know that there was an Irishman, Sean Lester, who featured hugely within that place and time. Russell says, “It was maybe ten years ago that I read about Sean Lester and the League of Nations in Danzig, and I suppose when I originally set out with my ideas for the story, he wasn’t part of it, but I found him so interesting and such an extraordinary man, I wanted my hero to meet him. There is this strange serendipity, and a weird coincidence, that the Bishop of Danzig was called O’Rourke, and he was Russian!! If you made that up, people would think it was absurd, and he too was fascinating, and yes, there are those who have said that I’ve given the church a bit of a rough time in some parts of the novel, but it does give me some satisfaction that in a sense, having shown up rather negative elements of the Catholic church’s influences on Irish life, that I was also able to present someone who within the church was quite a heroic figure. I hope the novel isn’t biased, but rather reflective of life at that time, not imposing any particular view.”
Having had a very enjoyable afternoon talking with Michael, (hoping he enjoyed my scones!), the last words about The City of Shadows not surprisingly went to the character of Stefan Gillespie, described in Michael’s own words, as an unsettled man, who despite the fact that he has a son, hasn’t really found his place, and is to some extent adrift. He’s not a man who is consciously looking for something, but yet, he is in a way. Stefan, Michael says “has sort of lost his way, with the early death of his wife setting him adrift. I don’t think that’s the only reason though. I think he would be quite bloody-minded either way. When he starts on a course of action, like an investigation for example, he doesn’t have a lot else to hang onto, so what he does almost defines who is, apart that is from his relationship with his son.
The next book will find Stefan working as a sergeant in Baltinglass, then becoming part of the Special Branch during the Emergency, taking us to New York in the process, and will be a book that I’ll be watching out for.
City of Shadows
Dublin 1934: Detective Stefan Gillespie arrests a German doctor and encounters Hannah Rosen desperate to find her friend Susan, a Jewish woman who had become involved with a priest, and has now disappeared.
When the bodies of a man and woman are found buried in the Dublin mountains, it becomes clear that this case is about more than a missing person. Stefan and Hannah trace the evidence all the way across Europe to Danzig.
In a strange city where the Nazi Party is gaining power, Stefan and Hannah are inching closer to the truth and soon find themselves in grave danger…
(c) Louise Phillips
Born in Dublin, Louise Phillips is the crime writing mastermind behind writing.ie’s Crime Scene blog. She began writing in 2006 when her youngest son turned thirteen. Since then, Louise has won the Jonathan Swift Award with her story Last Kiss. She was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, short-listed for the Molly Keane Memorial Award, Bridport UK, and long-listed twice for RTE Guide/Penguin short story competition. Louise has been published as part of many anthologies, including County Lines from New Island, and various literary journals. In May this year she was awarded an Arts Bursary for Literature from South Dublin Arts Council.
Louise’s psychological crime thriller Red Ribbons was shortlisted in the Irish Book Awards for Best Crime Novel of the Year 2012. Her second novel The Doll’s House will be published in 2013.