The City in Darkness - Michael Russell

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The City in Darkness - Michael Russell *****

There's a bit of everything in Michael Russell's The City in Darkness, his third 1930s set novel featuring the Irish Special Branch detective Stefan Gillespie. There's the familiar historical and political element that considers the place of Ireland in Europe and in relation to Britain in this intriguing period. There are connections to be established between the actions of the De Valera government, the growing strength of the IRA, and with the Nazis as the war threatens to engulf wider Europe. At the same time, Russell has his detective become embroiled in an investigation into a series of murders in the beauty spot of Glendalough in Co Wicklow, drawing in some personal elements that have haunted the detective in earlier books. Incredibly, he ties all these elements together remarkably well, extending even further his outlook on the period in this series without the reader needing to have any previous knowledge of the first two books.

Following on from the connections to Danzig and New York established in the first two Stefan Gillespie books, this time Russell looks towards another country involved in a complex and dangerous position during this period; the post Civil War Spain of Generalissimo Franco in 1939. Many Irishmen have travelled to Spain in the 1930s, fighting on both sides of the conflict, some of them fighting for the socialist and Communist ideals of the Republic, others opposing the heathens by supporting the Nationalists who have the backing of the Catholic Church. In the messy aftermath many Irishmen fighting for the Republican cause have faced imprisonment and summary executions. One of them, a once prominent figure on the Irish Republican scene, Frank Ryan, now languishes in a grim cell in a prison in Burgos.

Ryan is nonetheless regarded as a man of influence who could still have an important role to play in the continuing struggle in Ireland after the-War of Independence and Gillespie is aware that there are secret negotiations going on to try to get Ryan released and back to Ireland. The internal disarray of the IRA is presumably a matter of concern for the Irish government, but they evidently can't be seen to be taking an interest in Ryan. The negotiations moreover involve making connections with the Nazis who are still present in Franco's Spain, and both Ireland and Germany may have other reasons for a strong IRA being a thorn in the side of Britain in the developing wartime situation. As a Special Branch officer Stefan Gillespie is sent to Salamanca via Lisbon in the role of a neutral observer to oversee the possible release of Ryan, but evidently things become a little more involved than that. Plus Stefan has another personal matter to investigate while he is there in Spain.

The City in Darkness is remarkably ambitious in its use of real historical figures and speculative political activities in the murky area of Ireland's wartime neutrality and in matters of internal politics that had yet to be resolved. Gillespie's visit to Spain becomes classic espionage material, with spies lurking in the shadows, covert meetings and assignments, double-dealing and double-agents. The secret police operations, executions and assassinations all take on an extra edge of terror with the involvement of the Nazis, and there a complex web of intrigue as to the motivations of the Irish government and the activities of the IRA in it all. This part of the novel, while it does run through some well-worn espionage clichés, is a thrilling read.

Just as intriguing however, and taking up just as substantial a portion of the novel, is Stefan's investigation into a series of suspected murders near Glendalough. The disappearance of a local Post Office delivery man has opened up a wider investigation that Stefan is shocked to discover could have a personal dimension in connection to the accidental drowning of his wife at the beauty spot seven years previously. Russell develops the personal line of Stefan Gillespie well, making good use of his German family heritage and various other family and local complications that make his engagement to Kate somewhat difficult. Even more impressive is how the author ties in relatively minor local matters with what is going on in Spain and the rest of Europe. Russell weaves them all together - the politics and the personal motivations, local affairs and wider world affairs - into a terrific period crime thriller.

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The City in Darkness by Michael Russell is published by Constable on 3rd October 2016.

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