Michael Russell's Transcript
Published on 11th November 2013
Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode author Michael Russell reads from his two novels, 'The City of Shadows' and 'The City of Strangers'. Recorded in front of a live audience in the Central Library on 17 October 2013 as part of its 'Crime in the City: Crime and History' series.
Thank-you very much. You’ll excuse me if I’m a little breathless starting. Just to prove that I’ve come up from West Wicklow where parts of my novels are written, I was held up just outside Stratford, a tractor and trailer had shed about fifty bales of straw and the Guards wouldn’t let us through until the road was completely clear. I did my best but they were unimpressed when I said that I had to get to Dublin Central Library to talk to people about crime. I’ve written two novels which I guess loosely you would call, for want of a better phrase, historical crime fiction. One was The City of Shadows, which was published last year and The City of Strangers which is about to be published. It has actually already been published on the dreaded e-book but doesn’t come out as a real book until the beginning of November.
Now these are both books which in the tradition of crime fiction feature a central character who is a detective as it happens he is not a private investigator, he’s a Garda detective. And they are the first two books of a number that will follow this character through the years from the early 1930s through into the Second World War/ ‘Emergency’ whichever you prefer to call it. It’s worth saying that somewhere in the DNA of crime fiction is the fact that it is popular literature. Whatever else it’s about, if it doesn't tell a story that people want to read, it’s somehow something else. So in a way, the first thing to say is these are stories, hopefully they are good stories, hopefully they are stories that will keep people's attention and make people want to turn the page. They may be about other things. Hopefully the history that’s in them is reasonably accurate and when there is supposition it’s based on hopefully a reasonably intelligent knowledge of the period.
A critic this week, on my new book, was kind enough to say that at its heart this is a novel about memory and history and how this binds people together and what it meant to be Irish as the fledgling state established what it wanted to be. Now I hope there is a bit of that in there but I think primarily it’s about storytelling. Now I’ll talk a bit about how I started to write these books. Now I’m not very good at talking off the cuff, so I’ve just written a few things down so excuse me if I read. When I’ve done this - it’s only a page – I’ll read a bit from the books.
Raymond Chandler said that one of the characteristics of crime fiction, for want of a better name, is the unnatural squeezing up of time frames. The same thing applies to history when it's dragged willingly or otherwise, into the world of crime writing. But why squeeze all that up at all? The answer to why anyone of us write anything, is always that we write what we love writing. We take what interests us and intrigues us and we try to turn that into a story. That doesn't mean there isn't usually bit more to it as well. We probably spend too much time putting fiction into genres and sub-genres these days. 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 was 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 this 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 and in particular the way the Second World War touched Ireland. And over the series to visit several cities sometimes at the heart of that war, sometimes at its compromised periphery: Dublin, Danzig, New York, Lisbon, 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 Irish men and women too would leave to fight for the allies, and when a major opposition to De Valera’s government in the form of the IRA wanted nothing more than a German invasion to shake off the last vestiges of British rule on the island. 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 to Belfast.
None of us know quite know where what we write comes from. It was really only when I started to write, that I realised the part played by the childhood tales my grandmother had told me about the 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. As I wrote I felt I knew those dark streets better than I thought. History is only a piece of it 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 have to open up the life of the main characters, in my case Stefan Gillespie, an outsider never happy with simple answers who is 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 Gillespie into dark places in the way that crime stories usually do. But those crimes frequently take him to the uncomfortable margins of the coming war and later to 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 story.
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 the leader of the Nazi Party in Ireland and bluntly a German spy. Across Europe an Irishman called Seán Lester, a great man who has been erased from even schoolbooks my children read for Leaving Cert when studying this period. He happened to be the League of Nations High Commissioner in the city state of Danzig, which we know now as the Polish city of Gdansk, a German enclaves surrounded by Poland, which had recently elected a Nazi government and was busy dismantling its democratic constitution. For two years with little more than a stubborn nature and Irish charm, Lester and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Danzig, a Russian émigré who went by the unlikely Russian name of Edward O’Rourke stood in the way Danzig’s attempts to unite itself with Hitler’s Germany. Lester was called the most hated men in Germany. Danzig eventually joined Germany in 1939 of course, and the rest as we might say is history because Danzig 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 Patrick Day celebrations pulls him into a world of espionage and counter-espionage again, this time via Republican politics. Again real characters are there to stumble on. The IRA chief of Staff Seán Russell in New York to raise money for the extensive but unsuccessful, sabotage against Britain; A Jewish gangster called "Longie" Zwillman who had unexpected FBI friends; Charles Coughlin, the radio priest who was one of America's most pro-Hitler voices and 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 that is in the background to both The City of Shadows and The City of Strangers. A struggle in which both Ireland and America were involved. Sometimes it looks more like fight over which side you are going to be neutral on. It's an unfamiliar backwater of history, and maybe that's what combining history and mystery gives - the opportunity to go to some of the forgotten places history doesn't take us. But then 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.
Now having said that the story is all important, the story is clearly the thing you can't really represent in a reading. And I thought the best thing to do is to read a few extracts that in a sense are about description, about the atmosphere of the time, partly in some cases about Dublin, the city.
But I’ll start with an extract from The Irish Times. Each book is divided into three parts and it happened, I mean it came about by chance but each part is introduced by a real extract from an Irish Times article of the period. Sometimes those are very specific things which I’ve actually used in order to actually develop a crime. Sometimes they are pieces that give the atmosphere of the time. There is an extraordinary one which I probably won’t have time to read in the last part of the second book. A great thing to do an Irish Times reporter on the day war was declared by Britain and Germany - or Britain and France I guess, strictly speaking - just went out into the streets of Dublin to see what was happening and just wrote about the conversations he overheard, almost none of which were about war. Actually it's a fantastic piece of writing and one of those things that I wish I'd written and wished I could've just sneaked straight into my book, but I do credit the guy with writing it.
But anyway, when I was writing the first book I wanted something to happen, that involved, it was quite specific, I wanted my main detective character to be involved on a raid on an abortion clinic, but I didn’t want it to be just any abortion clinic. It wasn’t a backstreet abortion story. It had to be about an abortion clinic run by a man with friends and influence. It was operating as it were in plain sight. But it was more complicated than that. I wanted him to be German. I wanted him to be a friend of Adolf Mahr and I wanted him to be at some level involved in some quite complex areas of spying and blackmail, which meant that he was not only getting information, but that he was also selling information for instance to special branch at Dublin Castle. And I thought it was unlikely that I'd find anything like that but I’ll look in The Irish Times Archive, see if there is anything that just gives me a kind of leader into… Anyway I found this article about a police raid by a detective Garda Sergeant - it’s from the court report - on a house in Merrion Square where a man was running a clinic and he was German and he was very good friends of a lot of influential people. And it read:
In the back drawing-room there was a quantity of medical and electrical apparatus. From the ceiling, operated by pulleys, was a large 170 centimetre shadow-less operating lamp hanging over a canvas covered object -when the cover was removed it was found to be a gynaecological chair with foot rests. The detective sergeant found a specially padded belt that could be used in conjunction with the chair. Among the objects found in the drawing-room was a sterilising case, in the drawer of which was wads of cotton wool. In the office there was a cardboard box containing a dozen contraceptives and a revolver.
The Irish Times
That last sentence is an extraordinary statement about the evidence of the time. Which was the most dangerous? Hard to know - the contraceptives or the revolver.
The first book starts actually two years earlier than that raid and it’s the night before the Eucharistic mass in the Phoenix Park.
The moon shone on the Liffey as it moved quietly through Dublin, towards the sea. The river was sparkling. Silver and gold flecks of light shimmered and played between the canal-like embankments of stone and concrete that squeezed it tightly into the city’s streets. By day the river was grey and sluggish, even in sunlight, darker than its sheer walls, dingier and duller than the noisy confusion of buildings that lined the Quays on either side. Its wilder origins, in the emptiness of the Wicklow Mountains, seemed long forgotten as it slid, strait-jacketed and servile, through the city it had given birth to. It wasn’t the kind of river anyone stood and looked at for long. It had neither majesty nor magic. Its spirit had been tamed, even if its city never had been. From Arran Quay to Bachelor’s Walk on one side, from Usher’s Quay to Aston Quay on the other, you walked above the river that oozed below like a great, grey drain. And if you did look at it, crossing from the Southside to the Northside, over Gratton Bridge, the Halfpenny Bridge, O'Connell Bridge, it wasn’t the Liffey itself that held your gaze, but the soft light on the horizon where it escaped its walls and found its way into the sea at last. Yet, sometimes, when the moon was low and heavy over the city, the Liffey seemed to remember the light of the moon and the stars in the mountains, and the nights when its cascading streams were the only sound.
It was three o'clock in the morning as Vincent Walsh walked west along Ormond Quay. There was still no hint of dawn in the night sky. He had no reason at all to imagine that this would be the last day of his short life of only twenty-three years. He caught the glittering moonlight on the water. He saw the Liffey every day and never noticed it, but tonight it was full of light and full of life. More than a good omen, it felt like a blessing, cutting through the darkness that weighed him down. It was a fine night and surely a fine day to come. Turning a corner he saw lights everywhere now, lighting up the fronts of building, strung between the lampposts along the Quays, illuminating every shop and every bar. Curtains were drawn back to show lamps and candles in the windows of every home. The night was filling up with people. The streets had been empty, even fifteen minutes ago, when he’d set off from Red Cow Lane, but suddenly there were figures in the darkness, more and more of them now, in front, behind, crossing over the bridges from south of the river, all walking in the same direction: west.
A stream of Dubliners moved along with him, flowing in the opposite direction to the Liffey, growing at every tributary junction that fed into the Quays. Men and women on their own, quiet and purposeful; couples, old and young, silent and garrulous, some holding hands like lovers and some oblivious of one another; families pushing prams and pulling stubborn toddlers, while youngsters of every age raced in and out of the throng with growing excitement. There were young men who walked in quiet, sober groups, some fingering a rosary, and others full of raucous good humour; women and girls, arm in arm in lines across the street, gossiping and giggling as eager, teasing, endless words tumbled out of their mouths. Occasionally the whole population of a side street decorated with flowers and banners erupted out to join the flow of people moving towards the Phoenix Park. Vincent Walsh glanced back to see the first pink glow behind him in the sky. The new day was coming. And it was as if everyone around him had that same thought at once, as if all those footsteps, already full of such happy anticipation, were moving even faster now, more purposefully and more exuberantly forward, to the gates that led into the Park.
The noise was suddenly much louder. Everyone was talking. The sense of being a part of it all, of belonging to it all, of being absorbed into this hopeful stream of humanity, was irresistible. It wasn't something Vincent wanted to resist. He was fighting back tears, even as his face beamed and smiled in response to the joyful faces around him. This was how he wanted to feel; it was how, when this day ended, he knew he could never be allowed to feel. As they all poured through the Park gates together to find their places for the next day’s mass it was quiet again for a moment. Abruptly the night had opened up around them. Dublin, always so closed and crowding in on itself, was gone. There was only the rhythmic sound of thousands of feet on grass and gravel, and the sight of thousands of shadows amongst the trees of the Phoenix Park.
The City of Shadows, pp 3-5
This is actually from close to the end of the second book and I guess it’s a demonstration of awe; it’s an example of real history, some real history, being incorporated in something. The background to this is the murder of an Irish intelligence officer who is working in New York at the Irish pavilion for the World’s Fair, which was on in New York in 1939 and where the Free State had spent an enormous amount of money on a pavilion, which was meant to do many things. It wasn’t only there to show Ireland's independence from Britain because it was very separate. In fact the World’s Fair of 1939 was the last World Fair at which there actually was and entity, an area that was called the British Empire and the Irish pavilion was a long way from that. One of the other things it was meant to do and that was very important to De Valera, it was meant to show to the world that the future somehow lay not with empires, not with big states, it lay with the free small countries of the world. And in that sense it was meant to kind of give a lead to what people saw was going to happen in terms of the breakup in particular, of the British Empire, but of other empires too. In the light of what was about to happen, of course, it has its own irony. Within six months of the opening of the World’s Fair at least two of the pavilions there, the Czechoslovak Pavilion and the Polish Pavilion were actually represented countries that no longer existed. But anyway, this is about a murder. It is about Stefan Gillespie, the detective, finding out why this murder happened. It seems quite simple. It has something to do with the aftermath of the Civil War and events that happened in West Cork in the early 1920s. In the end it turns out to be something which is rather more complex and is as much about betrayal within a family as it is about what was actually going on in the Civil War. This is the end of that story. It’s a story that’s kind of woven through and comes to the fore now and again. It’s a separate section; it’s what happens to one of the main characters involved in that story. You will recognise that there are certain historical events that are woven into that.
The night before Aidan McCarthy's execution, Thomas Pierrepoint, the English hangman watched him through a secret window in the condemned cell at Winson Green Prison, Birmingham, in order to finalise his calculations. Although the Home Office provided a table that matched height and weight to the length of the noose required for an efficient hanging, the final judgment was the hangman’s own; hanging was an intimate business and in the last seconds, when the hood was put over the head, there were only two people involved, the hangman and the to-be-hanged. Other judgments had, of course, already been made, and if there was another to come after the drop, well, that was in a different jurisdiction altogether.
As Pierrepoint watched him, McCarthy was kneeling at the side of the bed praying.
He prayed for the people he loved. For his wife and the man he had always looked on as his son. He prayed for the brother his silence had sentenced to death in another execution all those years ago on a stormy night outside Castleberehaven. He prayed for his country and the struggle for freedom that he was dying for. He thought of the places he loved. He remembered the sound of the sea; the breath of the cattle in the cold morning air; the rain on the Caha Mountains. He prayed for the places he loved too. He did pray for the man who had met a brutal death in a strange city because of the lies he had told, and because of the lies other people had made out of those lies, and because of what had been left inside a small boy’s heart seventeen years earlier; but it would be an exaggeration to say that the life of the soldier of the Free State, even then, warranted very much praying.
He didn't pray for the five people who had died outside of the jewellery shop in Coventry’s Broadgate: a man of eighty-one, a man of fifty, a man of thirty-three, a woman of twenty-one, a boy of fifteen. He had heard their names many times in the course of the trial, but he didn't think of them now. He felt no real remorse for what he had done. A war was being fought, and wars had victims; there had been enough Irish victims after all. How many of their names were on English lips?
He got up from his prayers and moved to the table where a plate of steak and roast potatoes and cabbage was waiting for him. There was a glass of Guinness. He had no particular love of stout; he was no great drinker; but he drank it out of politeness to the warder. And he was calm enough. What was happening now was what had to happen. He had known that from the moment he was arrested. And he had thought about it before in the bare, damp room in Hammersmith, lying awake at night, listening to the rumble of the Underground. He would die for Ireland and in doing that maybe someone else, someone younger wouldn’t have to die. In dying he would pay his debt too, and in paying it, finally the past would be purged.
Aidan McCarthy had left Ireland for England the day Stefan Gillespie and Gearóid De Paor returned to Dublin. He had not waited for goodbyes; he would not see the faces of the people he loved changed in the way they saw him forever. He had simply walked away with enough money to take the boat from Cove to England.
In London he had gone to Hammersmith, for no special reason other than that there were Irish people there, but not too many. He called himself David Haigh. He had got himself a job on a building site and, after sleeping rough for two nights, a room in Cambridge Grove, overlooking the District Line; he worked hard and kept himself to himself.
The first night in Cambridge Grove he had walked down to the Thames; he had a drink at the Blue Anchor and drank it outside, looking at Hammersmith Bridge.
The IRA’s attempt to blow it up was in Aidan McCarthy’s mind that night. It wasn't difficult, over a period of months, for him to find his way to people who knew people in the IRA in London, and to make it clear that he was willing to work for the cause. He had soon sensed who he should talk to and the habit of silence that characterised him recommended him to him. Since the bombing campaign had started in January the bombs had continued to go off, regularly and ineffectually; the IRA was now an illegal organisation in Ireland as well as Britain; more and more IRA men had been imprisoned. Volunteers were thin on the ground now, and because of that David Haigh was trusted sooner than he might have been. He moved very quickly from carrying messages across London to carrying explosives.
On 21 August he had taken a train to Coventry to visit James Richards, an IRA man lodging with a family in Clara Street to instruct him to prepare a bomb. The bomb would be collected by another IRA man and planted in the city. McCarthy had returned to Hammersmith the next day to supply explosives for three bombs destined for Scotland Yard, Westminster Abbey and the Bank of England. The bombers were caught before the bombs could be planted but two days later in Coventry, James Richards’ bomb went off outside a jewellery shop. The man who left the bomb was never identified, but James Richards was arrested immediately and Aidan McCarthy, as David Haigh, was already in custody. Now he was to hang.
A man can only give what he has, but as he faced death, Aidan McCarthy found more than he knew he had. He had said little during the trial; he had answered questions where there was an answer he chose to give, but he said nothing, nothing that incriminated anyone. Only at the end of the day did he say anything about himself.
‘My lord, before you pass sentence of death on me, I wish to thank sincerely the gentlemen who have defended me. I wish to state that what I have done I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die.’ He died under the name he had called himself in London. He made no attempt to communicate with his family in Béarra. There was no consolation to be offered to them and he didn't expect his death to give any; but he felt he had done his duty at the highest level, and in doing so, he had tried to pay the debt he owed his brother. If there was forgiveness, please God, he had earned it. He died well for what he believed in; the five people in Coventry who had died also for what he believed didn’t; but as tens of millions prepared to die all over the world, well and not so well, for what others believed, none of it mattered very much.
Many years later, Aidan McCarthy’s body would be transferred from the grounds of Winson Green to Ireland for burial. His coffin would be draped in the Irish tricolour, just as Captain John Cavendish’s had been, and just as alongside the Stars and Stripes Captain Aaron Phelan’s of the NYPD had been.
Yet as Aidan McCarthy walked the cold stone corridor of Winson Green to meet Thomas Pierrepoint, his final thoughts were not as easy as he has hoped they might be. The priest walked beside him; his last confession was said; he had received his last Eucharist and he had carried its promise of salvation. And he wanted to believe it, yet the words that came to him, not the priest’s words but words suddenly there in his head, were not words of absolution. ‘But whoso shall offend one of these little ones … it were better for him a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the bottom of the sea.’
As the black hood went over his head, the sound he heard was a sound from that morning, seventeen years ago on Pallas Strand, somehow there with him now, at the end; it was the angry screaming of the gulls. And it wasn't the eyeless face of his dead brother he saw, buried in sand almost up to the shoulders; it was the face of the small boy staring at it.
The City of Strangers pp 456-460
I’ll read one more bit, which kind of follows on from that. It’s about Stefan Gillespie, the detective, the hero if you like. The events of the book have been responsible for… in ways which are not direct for breaking up a relationship. He is a fairly young man but he’s a widower and these are just some thoughts he has which I guess are relevant to what we are talking about. This is a conversation that Stefan is having with a woman that he has been having an affair with, who is an English woman married to an Irishman who is in the British Army - which was the complexity of those days. And the odd thing is that although she is an English woman, and her husband, because he is a soldier has lived away a lot and oddly it's her husband who’s confused about his relationship with Ireland, whereas she actually has come to see it as her home and is now having to leave.
‘Christmas in Sussex shouldn't be so bad. Isn’t it home?’ said Stefan.
‘I'm not sure it is,’ she said quietly.
He looked at her. He could see tears welling in her eyes.
‘It’s not just Jane and Alex [they are her children who are friends of Stefan’s son and they are kind of eight and nine] I’m probably not doing a good job of enthusing them about going to England. I keep saying it’s going home, but it’s not their home. This is. And I suppose – I’ve never thought about it - I’d never realised. You know I spend all my time complaining about Whitehall Grove - it’s falling round our ears - and the farm’s a disaster - and all going to hell in a handcart while Simon swans around the Empire and leaves us all to rot here – well, you’ve been on the receiving end of enough of it.’
‘That doesn’t sound like you at all.’
She smiled, but the smile was only on her lips.
‘The truth is - it’s my home too. I don’t want to go. It’s nothing to do with the war. It’s nothing to do with Simon. I don’t mean that the way it sounds. I want us to be a family again. I want children to know their father, for all of us. But I wish it was here. I wish it was all the other way around.’
‘Whatever happens, it won’t go on forever.’
‘Is that the best you can do, Stefan?’ Now she laughed.
Okay it wasn’t very good even for a platitude.
‘But you’ll have the children.’
She nodded; that was better; at least that was true.
For a moment they both looked at the fire.
It was still, when everything else was over between them, the children that held them together.
‘Can I sound like your mother, Stefan?’
‘How the hell do I answer that?’
‘I’ve never been very good at making wishes for other people. I wish you - I wish you and Tom - I suppose what I mean is I hope anything that happened between you and me - didn't get in the way of anything else -’
He sat back and shook his head.
‘Unfortunately there was nothing for it to get in the way of.’
Then he laughed. It was a throwaway from the list of throwaways he had in stock for the occasions when people said such things. Valerie never had in the past; he liked her because she didn't push those lazy ideas at him. It didn't much matter that she had now. But he was conscious of the trip he had taken to Dún Laoghaire the week before. There had been a few days, just a few days out of years, when he had thought differently. It hadn’t lasted very long. And even that tiny, fragile hope, maybe only barely there, had been broken, not by anything in him, not by anything in Kate O’Donnell, but by other people’s battles, other people's memories, other people's rattle bags of righteousness and revenge, other people’s wars. The past didn’t only come up out of the ground at you in Ireland; it walked around the streets, following you, and if you turned around to complain it spat in your face.
The City of Strangers, pp 423-425
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