Classy, complex political thriller set in 1934 : Dublin, Danzig, and a world inching towards war
Whoever alerted me to this one – thank you. Michael Russell has written an intelligent thriller set in 1934 Ireland, and in the Free City of Danzig, which is both a page turning read, and a thoughtful, educative one. I’m also delighted, having finished it, to see there is a sequel, with his unusual detective going to New York, in City Of Silence (and I know a third is to be published, so I’m very very pleased to have come across Russell.
Okay, so what makes his Dublin based detective, Stefan Gillespie, so ‘unusual’?
Well, in the current climate of most police procedurals it seems almost unheard of to find someone who is not : an alcoholic, or recovering alcoholic; an ‘edgy maverick’; someone with few social skills; someone with a damaged and abused past; someone who has problems relating to women; someone mildly (or more so) with extreme mental, emotional or behavioural problems. Instead, and isn’t THIS shocking! – we have a pretty decent individual, who is normally humanly complex, interested in justice, does his job as well as he can, gets along with his parents, is a tender father, has good relationships with his colleagues, a bit of a short fuse when riled by bullies, incompetents and ne-er do well thugs, and even, good heavens, can form adult relationships with feisty intelligent women!
Oh, and ‘women’ rather than ‘woman’ doesn’t mean he is a philanderer. Though he does have a dead wife whom he loved dearly (natural accident)
Stefan Gillespie, a detective in the Garda, is trying to arrest a known abortionist. He discovers that Hannah Rosen, a young woman visiting the abortionist at the time he makes his raid is not there for the obvious reason, but because she is trying to find a friend who has gone missing, last known port of call, the abortionist, many months earlier.
The curious involvement of Special Branch, who unaccountably seem to be trying to protect the abortionist, the presence of various Nazi sympathisers, make things a bit more confusing. And when Gillespie discovers that Hannah Rosen is Irish Jewish but now resident in Palestine, things get even more complex, as the high class abortionist is an Austrian Nazi sympathiser.
What makes Russell’s book so special though, is his ability to handle complex political, social, historical and religious themes, making the reader as well as his characters, think and judge what is going on.
Firstly there are the complex and tangled affairs of Irish history and the various alliances made and broken after the creation of The Irish Free State. And then the equally complicated history of the short lived Free City of Danzig. Then the equally complex and tangled relationships or otherwise between Catholicism and Protestantism, the unacceptability of ‘mixed marriages’ in Ireland, and the existence of a bedrock of anti-Semitism, not just coming from Germany, but far more widespread. Odd bedfellows are explored – for example, for reactionary strains within Catholicism, ‘my enemy’s enemy’ could become my friend – communism, aligned with atheism, was the anathema, so fascism, tacitly supported or not opposed, found some ready soil within certain factions of the Catholic hierarchy.
However, Russell is far too interested, learned and subtle a thinker to be one sided, this is no Dawkinsesque demonise the church polemic . And he is far too much a seasoned writer of dramatic tension (television scriptwriter) to get caught by the trap of putting heavy issues FIRST and ending up writing something all about ideas, but with no drama, no narrative, no complex and credible characters to inhabit all this charged stuff
Complex, and absolutely credible plot lines move Gillespie’s search for missing witnesses, missing persons to Danzig, on the eve of elections designed to deliver that Free City back to Germany. Fact and fiction are beautifully entwined with a couple of real ‘heroes’ little known, playing pivotal roles in this story.
I could not begin to second guess what was going on, as the tangled web seemed to be getting ever more complicated, and there were some genuine surprises. Okay, there were possibly one or two too many fortuitous in the nick of time escapes from some certain sticky ends, but this is a real delight of a pacey, well crafted political thriller, with strong and credible characters.