Sunday 17 December 2017

Books: Nazi spies and Old IRA men -- NYC in the rare ould times

Fiction: The City of Strangers Michael Russell Avon, £7.99, tpbk, 486 pages

A thoughtful window on the past: Michael Russell
A thoughtful window on the past: Michael Russell

Sean Farrell

Michael Russell has done it again. A year after City of Shadows, he has produced a second excellent historical thriller featuring his Irish police hero Stefan Gillespie.

After a chilling introduction, an atrocity committed during the civil war, the story fast-forwards to the spring of 1939, as the world slides towards war. Stefan, a young widower and station sergeant in Baltinglass Co Wicklow, is recalled to Headquarters to handle a sensitive issue.

A woman has been murdered brutally. There is evidence that she had been embezzling money from the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, an earlier version of the Lotto and of near iconic significance among the Irish American community which bought most of the tickets. The sweepstakes, moreover, are politically connected. The chief suspect, her son, a young, gay, wannabe actor, has travelled to New York by boat with the Gate Theatre Company.

After agreeing at first to return voluntarily to Ireland, the suspect flees. With the New York World's Fair set to open, in which Ireland has an important showcase pavilion, the instructions to Stefan are clear -- to repatriate the suspect with minimum fuss.

This proves easier said than done. Stefan travels to New York on one of the first flying boat flights from Foynes. On the flight, he encounters a wealthy Irish American, who proves to be the US head of Clan na Gael (the IRA front organisation). Later, he encounters an old Irish army friend, attached to the Irish World Fair pavilion, as well as another femme fatale, intent on rescuing her sister from a psychiatric hospital.

As his search for the murder suspect continues, the plot becomes more complicated, with a mysterious death and Stefan's realisation that he is being drawn into a complex conspiracy involving Nazi agents, IRA sympathisers and elements of the New York underworld.

The pace is hectic, the body count mounts, the civil war past is revisited as Stefan finds surprising allies and grapples with issues where the stakes are high, not just for him but for Ireland.

As before, Russell captures the time and the mood superbly, from the novel and exhilarating experience of flying transatlantic, to the atmosphere in the US as war beckons. It is a period when the USA, and New York in particular, harbours tens of thousands of Old IRA and many more exiles and sympathisers opposed to Eamon de Valera's Ireland and all it stands for.

As pro-IRA, pro-German and isolationist groups increase pressure for the US to remain neutral in any conflict, the World's Fair itself is dominated physically by the rival pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both offering different and unappetising visions of the future. The sense of Ireland, as a small and vulnerable nation, alone in this situation, is very well conveyed.

An excellent and thoughtful window on the past. Highly recommended.

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Irish Independent

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