Dublin and New York 1939
Raymond Chandler said that one of the characteristics of crime fiction (for want of a better name) is the unnatural squeezing up of timeframes. The same thing applies to history when it is dragged, willingly or otherwise, into the world of crime writing. But why squeeze all that up at all? The answer to why any of us write anything is always that we all write what we love writing. We take what interests us and intrigues us and we try to turn that into a story. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t usually a bit more to it as well.
We probably spend too much time putting fiction into genres and sub-genres these days, but the historical crime novel is clearly a genre of some kind, combining as it does two resiliently popular areas of fiction: history and mystery. But it has an odd quality that a contemporary setting doesn’t demand. You can’t play fast and loose with the past the way you can with the present. Readers expect their history to be historical! Especially if your detective is going to stumble into real events and real people along the way.
When I started the first of a series of crime novels set in Ireland in the 30s and 40s, THE CITY OF SHADOWS, part of the pleasure and part of the purpose was to explore that time, in particular the way the Second World War touched Ireland, and over the series to ‘visit’ a number of cities that were sometimes at the heart of that war and sometimes at its compromised periphery: Dublin, Danzig, New York, Lisbon, Paris, Berlin, London, Rome.
The starting point would always be the perspective of one small island that was to remain resolutely but uncomfortably ‘neutral’ through the whole course of the conflict, even though tens of thousands of its men would leave to fight for the Allies and the major opposition to the Irish government, in the form of the IRA, wanted nothing more than a German invasion to shake off the last vestiges of British rule. It would be about a time when British and German spies sat at adjacent tables in Dublin pubs, and where Irish neutrality was best summed up not by the political rhetoric but by the fact that German aircrew landing in Ireland were interned for the duration of the war, while Allied airmen were put on a bus straight back to British territory.
None of us know quite where what we write about comes from, but it was only when I started to write that I realised the part played by childhood tales my grandmother told about the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War that followed in the 20s, and my mother and father’s stories of growing up in Second World War Britain. I knew those dark streets better than I thought.
History is only a piece of it of course, and if our stories don’t work as crime fiction it doesn’t matter how good the history is. It’s the stories that have to drive the history, the stories that also have to open up the life of the main characters, in my case Garda Sergeant Stefan Gillespie, an outsider who is never happy with a simple answer, and is too often uneasy with what his country is doing and with what it sometimes asks him to turn a blind eye to.
The stories start with simple crimes; dead bodies and missing people. They lead Stefan Gillespie into dark places in the way that our stories usually do, but those crimes frequently take him to the uncomfortable margins of the coming war and later the war itself. It is in those deep shadows, as I wrote, that I found real events and real characters pushing their way into the stories.
It began with a man called Adolf Mahr, an archaeologist who was the much-respected director of Ireland’s National Museum. He also happened to be leader of the Nazi party in Ireland and, bluntly, a German spy. Across Europe an Irishman called Seán Lester happened to be the League of Nations High Commissioner in the city-state of Danzig, a German enclave surrounded by Poland, which had recently elected a Nazi government and was busy dismantling its democratic constitution. For two years Lester stood in the way of Danzig’s attempts to unite itself with Hitler’s Germany, with little more than a stubborn nature and Irish charm. He was called the ‘most hated man in Germany’. Danzig eventually joined Germany in 1939 of course – it was where the first shots of the Second World War were fired.
In THE CITY OF SHADOWS two bodies in the Dublin Mountains lead Stefan Gillespie to Danzig in search of a murderer. Four years later in THE CITY OF STRANGERS he has to bring a killer back from New York. A death after the city’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations pulls him into the world of espionage and counter-espionage again, this time via Irish Republican politics. Again real characters are there to stumble into. There is the IRA chief of staff, Seán Russell, in New York to raise money for a sabotage campaign against the British; a Jewish gangster called Longie Zwillman with unexpected FBI friends; Charles Coughlin, the ‘Radio Priest’ who is one of America’s most pro-Hitler voices; a visit by the English king to New York’s World’s Fair.
There is a struggle to remain neutral in the face of war in THE CITY OF STRANGERS, in both Ireland and America, but sometimes it looks more like a fight over ‘which side you’re going to be neutral on’. It’s an unfamiliar backwater of history. Maybe what combining history and mystery gives is the opportunity to go to some of the forgotten places history doesn’t take us. But perhaps that’s what all crime writing is doing all the time, using strong, compelling narratives to take us to ‘places’ we would otherwise never get to.
THE CITY OF STRANGERS contains, alongside straightforward fiction, real events and real people, as well as characters and events that skim history just a little more loosely. From time to time there may even be some truth to be found, but as it’s not unknown for a little untruth to insert itself into what passes for real history, I can only say I make no claims in that area. I won’t make any claims for the story either, other than to say that in 1939 New York was probably the most exciting city on earth. It was no idle boast when the World’s Fair the city was hosting called itself ‘The World of Tomorrow’. The World of Tomorrow didn’t stop at the gates of the Fair in Flushing Meadows either, it was New York itself. And New York in 1939 is still a place worth visiting. THE CITY OF STRANGERS is one way of getting there. Don’t forget that Duke Ellington is playing Small’s Paradise in Harlem and watch out for any falling bodies if you’re heading towards 7th Avenue on West 59th.
(From Michael Russell) I have written most of my life, mostly UK TV drama. All that started as a way to earn a living. I have finally got round to what I was earning it for: time to write novels. The Stefan Gillespie series (THE CITY OF SHADOWS, THE CITY OF STRANGERS) is set in Ireland in the 30s and 40s and in cities playing a major part in WWII: Danzig, New York, Lisbon, Berlin, London, Rome. War and the rumour of war; Ireland’s dark past and present; being neutral when there’s no neutrality; ordinary people dragged reluctantly into the darkness; hopefully a good yarn; the Wicklow Mountains (where I live with my family); and a detective who can if needed, when not investigating crimes his superiors would rather he didn’t, milk a cow and shear a sheep!
To learn more about Michael, please visit his website.