Michael Russell has written extensively for television on series like A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders, All Creatures Great and Small. He now writes novels.
The City Underground, recently published by Constable, is the seventh in a series that takes a sideways look at crime, espionage and Ireland in World War II. Michael lives in West Wicklow, not a million miles from the home of his own garda detective Stefan Gillespie.
The books on your bedside table?
I love audiobooks now. A nightly luxury. I’m finishing Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan. Great writing is, in the end, the magic of putting one word after another in different orders: one way nothing, the other great prose. Hear Peake’s magic!
The first book you remember?
When I was seven I had polio. I spent months in an isolation hospital with only the Beano, Dandy and Eagle, but mostly books, most memorably Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. My children loved the stories too. There are few funnier writers, few who capture childhood so effortlessly, and few who write such lucid prose.
Your book of the year?
The Pope at War by David Kertzer. My next novel is set in Rome in 1943. Kertzer examines newly released Vatican archives from the 1940s. In a field notorious for work so anti or pro-Catholic that it’s worthless, Kertzer changes the narrative.
A book that changed your life?
Books rarely change lives. But they shape them. They are gifts we carry whose worth is beyond price. But I’ll name one to represent the rest, [Homer’s] Odyssey Book XI, the descent into the underworld. At school I was privileged to read Greek and Latin. It was a state school, no money changed hands.
Now, access to the classics can barely be bought. I recall the wonder of reading Homer, Aristophanes, Virgil, Catullus, as if it was yesterday. It’s no indulgence. I think few things rob our children of their future more than denying them access to the riches of the past.
The book you couldn’t finish?
Since The Lord of the Rings is about to appear below as a book I’ve loved, I’ll place Tolkien’s vast addendum to it – The Silmarillion onwards – in the category of unfinished and unreadable.
Christopher Tolkien taught me Old English and Old Norse and was an inspiration. He left to edit his father’s histories of Middle Earth. I opened The Silmarillion with enthusiasm. I closed it, forever, after a few pages.
A favourite literary character?
Even William Brown is eclipsed by a boy of more dubious reputation, Huckleberry Finn. For me, Twain’s book is the great American novel. It’s the finest first-person narrative – Chandler’s Marlowe comes close. It challenged racism more strongly than is now recognised. Huck and Jim are one of literature’s greatest friendships.
Your Covid comfort read?
Unquestionably Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. I read it at 14. I still re-read it.
The book that you give as a present?
You have to know someone well to know what to give. A standby is one of Elizabeth David’s books, like A Book of Mediterranean Cookery. If you doubt writing on cooking can produce wonderful prose, she will prove you wrong.
The writer who shaped you?
There’s a list. But one stands out, in ways that are personal and hard to articulate. It is to do with a vision and with a sense of place, including important places in my childhood. Thomas Hardy did not shape my writing, but he did shape who I am.
The book you would most like to be remembered for?
I’m still working on it.