Monday, 14 October 2013

"The City of Strangers", Michael Russell

“The past didn’t only come up at you out of the ground in Ireland; it walked around the streets following you, and if you turned around to complain it spat in your face.”

I’ve been looking forward to “City of Strangers” for quite a while, I was excited when it arrived, and rightly so. It’s really good, and having enjoyed reading it over the weekend I’m very much looking forward to more.

Michael Russell skilfully navigates the challenges of following up a highly satisfying first novel with an accomplished sequel to “City of Shadows”. Splitting the narrative between Dublin and New York, and drawing in elements of modernity such as flying boats he weaves a story wrapping up multiple crimes in a highly enjoyable novel that once again transcends the boundaries of ‘police procedural’ and encourages comparisons with the likes of Alan Furst or John Lawton.

With historical crime fiction achieving a sense of place is critical. Russell is on surest ground in Ireland, where there is a real sense of authenticity, bearing this in mind it’s a mild disappointment that quite so much of the novel takes place in New York. The Irish-American community and the struggles within the United States regarding neutrality and the coming war is effectively portrayed, but somehow feels more of a stage set in the novel than a richly featured location.

What is absolutely achieved is a sense of how history wove around Irish society in the late 1930s. The ghosts of the independence struggle and the bloody civil war affect everyone and shape how society works through the plot. In this light it’s almost a shame that four years separate the events in this work from “The City of Shadows”. It feels as though there should be more to be mined from the rich seams of DeValera’s Ireland in the 1930s, and while I am sure Russell will be able to do so in the back story to subsequent novels, missing out on seeing how Stefan Gillespie handled some of the absurdities of autarky is a source of some regret.

At its heart this is a novel about memory and history and how this binds together people and what it meant to be “Irish” as the fledgling state established what it wanted to be. As one of the characters sagely advises towards the end of the book, when Stefan’s son wrestles with his German background in the light of the outbreak of war:

“Let’s make do with being Irish, Tom. God knows that’s hard enough”.

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