The City of Strangers by Michael Russell

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The City of Strangers by Michael Russell

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A young Garda sergeant is despatched to New York to bring home a murder suspect, but gets caught up in the pre-war underworld where the mob and race relations and politics and old fashioned hatred intersect. Dark and delicious.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Avon
ISBN: 978-1847563477

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In the spring of 1939 The Irish Times reported that Mrs Letitia Harris, aged 53 had gone missing from her home in Dublin. Her car was found the following morning on a cliff top near Shankill. There were bloodstains in the car, and a blood-stained hatchet in the shed back in Dublin, blood too in the flowerbed.

Cut back a few years to 1922 and a seven year old boy watches in a farmyard just up from Pallas Strand as the Garda take his father away. There's a dead sergeant at Derrylough and the usual IRA suspects are being rounded up for questioning. His father reacts stoically. His mother and uncle too. It will be all right. It always has been. They just wait for him to come back. But this time he doesn't come back. The next time this small boy will see his father will be something that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

And so back to 1939 – but across the sea now to New York's Fulton Fish Market, a place known to be run by the Mob, where Captain John Cavendish of the Irish Army is waiting to meet someone, a man delivering a package, a man whose lateness is making Cavendish nervous. His previous role in military intelligence, we are told, has nothing to do with his presence in America. It was a coincidence too that he was in New York while the IRA's chief of staff was in America, selling not only the new war against the old enemy, but the idea that the bigger war that had to come, sooner or later, between Britain and Germany, would bring the IRA back to a position of power in Ireland itself.

The package is delivered… but to understand its contents, a woman is needed. A nervous young woman who is currently under a kind of lock and key – the archetypal damsel in distress. Archetypal for 1930s gangster movies anyway.

There is no coincidence about John Cavendish's involvement with Kate O'Donnell and the Harlem trumpeter Jimmy Palmer. It is her sister that needs rescuing, and Jimmy is the key to making it work.

Where coincidence does come in - and it wouldn't be true to the noir milieu that the book inhabits without at least one - takes us back to that article in the Irish Times. It is generally held that Mrs Letitia Harris, aged 53, was murdered by her son, Owen. He has made is escape by way of travelling with the Gate Theatre for a run off Broadway. For reasons best thought of as political the Irish government would prefer not to have him arrested in New York and subjected to all the publicity of extradition proceedings. It doesn't seem necessary. He seems happy enough to come back and answer questions as a witness in the enquiry into his mother's death. So to fetch him home, quietly, and explicitly without involving himself in any kind of investigation is a Garda Sergeant from the wilds of West Wicklow, one Stefan Gillespie.

True to the genre Gillespie is not the kind of man to do what's told, just because it is what he is told to do.

And naturally, once Gillespie gets to New York, he will find that Harris is a bit less keen to be risking a hangman's noose back in Ireland, and has gone missing. A natural enough response, and one sufficient to keep our non-investigating detective on scene long enough to get mixed up with all of those other characters and drawn into waters far murkier that a small domestic murder.

To place The City of Strangers firmly in the gangster noir category is not to discredit it. It is a deep, dark and nasty world that when done right is as laced with history, and social commentary, and politics, as the best journalism – and Russell does it right. When played skilfully, it is a genre that can be stretched as taut as any thriller, as twisted as the best crime fiction – and Russell is a truly skilful player with words.

Without resorting to the brogue, he renders an Irish lilt to his expat characters and to the overall narration that is subtle yet unmistakeable. His New York is vibrant with the joy of whites discovering the decadent joys of the black clubs and the black music, and their fear of any kind of integration; it is alive with the future and yet, it still feels rendered in the black and white grain of old movies and still shots of half-built sky-scrapers. It's a place where suspicious strangers stand on street-corners watching, when men dress smartly in homburgs and overcoats and ride in the rear of expensive cars, a world where guns are carried, but where respect is earned through something more than pointing a barrel.

The story and the atmosphere alone would be enough reason to sink yourself into this book, but for those of us who grew up on the '60s and '70s and somehow got the idea that the Troubles were something of a sudden re-emergence of old hatreds, rather than just the latest over-boiling of the long-simmering resentments of generations, for those of us who were puzzled by Ireland's neutrality during the second world war, there is a lot of history to be gleaned from these pages as well. Complicated history. The kind of history that doesn't rely on who actually did what when, but upon how individuals might have thought and mis-thought about who intended to do what next, and why…

A lot of those thoughts were uninformed, a few were well-informed but still naïve. How much truth there is in any of it, will always be slightly shrouded in speculation. This is after all fiction.

But it is fiction that has a number of real people and real events holding its framework together. I've always said you can learn a lot from the best storybooks, because it is the story that keeps you focussed, and the history just leaks in around the edges.

I haven't come across Russell before, but The City of Shadows was long-listed for the CWA John Creasey Dagger Award in 2013, and with no further investigation there are enough hints in The City of Strangers to suggest that the previous book was a first outing for Gillespie. I am eager to find out what I missed so far – and to wonder if any of the characters will resurface in the even darker days to come after the end of this one. The author might have cut his teeth scripting Midsomer Murders and Frost, but this is a whole different league.

Definitely recommended.

If you enjoy this, then you really must read Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell for the real stories behind the Fishmarket and McSorley's - places that have walk-on parts in The City of Strangers. We can also recommend Little Bones by Sam Blake.

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Buy The City of Strangers by Michael Russell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The City of Strangers by Michael Russell at


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