The City of Shadows by Michael Russell | Book Reviews | Crime/Thriller

By Louise Phillips

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…

Michael Russell is a man who brings a lot of experience to the table in his debut novel The City of Shadows. After reading English at Oxford, Michael joined Yorkshire Television as Script Editor on Emmerdale Farm, where he became Series Producer. He also spent several years in the Drama Department, first as Script Consultant, then Producer, before leaving ITV 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.

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 seems to have dug its claws into Russell, and would not let go, the book partly inspired by stories told to him from his grandmother,about the Black and Tans, murders, and Thompson machine guns. If you read The City of Shadows, you will be immersed in the complex life of Stefan Gillespie, a character who never quite settles into the world around him, and therefore presents a deeper reflection to the reader of this time in history.

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. In a time when, if you were Catholic, you were Irish, Protestant,almost Irish, and if Jewish, in some circles, definitely not. The character of Hannah, an Irish Jew, is also a window to what’s happening in Europe, therefore opening up the macro picture in the process.
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 said 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.

One of the most mesmerizing chapters in The City of Shadows is the opening one. It has a very distinctive tone and rhythm to it, which stays with you throughout the remainder of the novel.

The novel also includes references to an Irishman, Sean Lester, part of League of Nations in Danzig, and the Russian Bishop of Danzig, who surprising enough was called O’Rourke.

Some people think Russell gave the Catholic Church a bit of a hard time in this book, but overall it felt balanced to me, presenting someone within the church who was quite a heroic figure along with the less attractive elements.

The next novel finds Stefan as part of Special Branch during the Emergency, taking us to New York in the process. One which I will be watching out for.

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