Today’s guest blog is by debut author Michael Russell. A former script editor for Yorkshire Television working on Emmerdale Farm, he subsequently became Series Producer. He also spent time in the Drama Department starting as Script Consultant before moving on to become Producer. Michael is also a regular contributor to Midsomer Murders and wrote the last ever-televised series Touch of Frost. Michael now lives in Ireland with his family and a large Rhodesian Ridgeback dog.
If you’ve spent much of your life writing crime, mystery, detective (what do we call it?) drama for television, there is a good chance that when you suggest a romantic comedy as your first novel, everybody will tell you it would be much better as, well, crime, mystery, detective fiction. And in my case everybody was right! Perhaps because for me a genre in which there are always stories, real, page-turning, tangible stories doing the driving, is irresistible. They don’t have to be hard-boiled or blood-curdling or limb-ripping (well maybe at times), but there is a pace you get when the stories drive the characters and the characters drive the stories, back and forth, like grand slam tennis, that is not like anything else however good for energy, whether the writer is Raymond Chandler or Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, John Buchan or Chester Himes. Moreover, with luck and a fair wind, the rest of us can at least tuck in behind them!
So why did I want to write a series of detective novels set in Ireland (and simultaneously Europe and America) during the lead up to the Second War and the war itself? I mean, other than to ignore the advice that I should write about what I know. It is good advice, but praise be that so many writers do ignore it!
What inspired me, living in Ireland now, was the peculiar position Ireland had during that war. It was ostensibly; even aggressively neutral (can you be aggressively neutral?). Yet when German pilots crashed in Ireland, they were interned for the duration of the war; Allied airman were given a pint of Guinness and put on the next train to Belfast. Ireland maintained an embassy in Berlin throughout the conflict, and Germany had an embassy in Dublin, but on the west coast of Ireland flying boats shuttled Allied and American generals and diplomats back and forward across the Atlantic to plan the war. British and German diplomats drank at adjacent tables in the bar at the Shelbourne Hotel. Before the war, the German director of the National Museum was a Nazi spy.
Nevertheless, Irish life at the edge of Europe went on, pursuing its own quiet purposes, sometimes as if nothing much was happening, and trying to keep a lid on the turbulent undercurrents left behind by the war against Britain and the civil war that had ended barely sixteen years earlier. Detective Sergeant Stefan Gillespie emerged out of all that one lunchtime in 2000, as if he had been waiting for me, when an Irish film producer asked me to think about a detective story set in Ireland during the Second World War. As is the way with producers, the project disappeared as abruptly as it arrived, but Stefan Gillespie didn’t go away. Not only would he not stay quietly in his bottom drawer, he started to develop a life of his own. Moreover, as I began to write about him I realised the world he lived in wasn’t so unfamiliar after all. I knew it better than I thought.
My grandmother came from Donegal to England in the 1920’s and she lived there till she died. But in many ways she never left Ireland. On her mantelpiece were two pictures among the family photos; one of President Éamon de Valera, the other of the Sacred Heart. On Sundays, she read not only the News of the World but the Irish Press from cover to cover. The stories she told me as a child were all about war and mayhem in Ireland during the war for independence and the civil war. They were a great deal bloodier (and therefore much better) than the stories anybody else’s grandmother told.
And Stefan Gillespie kept growing. Before long there wasn’t only one story in my head, there were several, and they didn’t just find the detective sergeant in Dublin and his native Wicklow Mountains. They took him to Danzig, where the seeds of the war were being sown in 1935; to New York in 1939, where the IRA was planning how to take power in Ireland once Germany defeated Britain; to Berlin where the Irish ambassador had abandoned any pretence of neutrality and become an embarrassingly shrill, and very un-neutral apologist for Hitler; to London during the Blitz where an Irish murderer was being protected by MI5; to Rome and the hotbed of intrigue and blind-eye-turning that was the Vatican. But whatever trail Stefan Gillespie takes the story always begins with some seemingly small tragedy or act of brutality in Ireland, a death or a crime that unravels, somewhere, to touch the storm blowing through the world beyond the island of Ireland. That is how it starts in ‘The City of Shadows’. A man is killed in a Dublin street. A woman disappears. Two bodies are discovered in the Dublin Mountains... In addition, Stefan Gillespie meets a woman who… well, the romance didn’t entirely fall by the wayside…
City of Shadows is set in Dublin 1934: Detective Stefan Gillespie arrests a German doctor and encounters Hannah Rosen desperate to find her friend Susan, a Jewish woman who disappeared after a love affair with a Catholic priest. When the bodies of a man and woman are found buried in the Dublin mountains, Stefan becomes involved in a complex case that takes him, and Hannah, across Europe to Danzig. Stefan and Hannah are drawn together in an unfamiliar city where the Nazi Party are gaining power. However, in their quest to uncover the truth of what happened to Susan, they find themselves in grave danger...