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Review of The City of Strangers by Michael Russell (Avon, 2013)
March 1939. Europe is on the edge of war and the IRA has started a bombing campaign in Britain. Garda Sergeant Stefan Gillespie is serving in a small Wicklow station, raiding illegal dances and investigating petty rural crime. He’s somewhat surprised when the Garda Commissioner calls him up to Dublin to tell him that he’s to take the new flying boat service from Foynes to New York to bring back a young man wanted in connection to the brutal murder of his mother. On arrival Gillespie comes into contact with Clan na Gael, the upholders of Irish Republican politics in the US, campaigners to keep the US out of European affairs, and power-brokers between the IRA and German intelligence, and also meets an old colleague from G2, the Irish Intelligence unit. He’s soon drawn into helping a woman holding vital secrets escape from an upscale psychiatric home, placing himself in danger, yet unable to turn to a police force dominated by Irish republicans.
The first Stefan Gillespie book, The City of Shadows, was one of my top three reads of 2012, so I’d been looking forward to the second book in the series. The City of Strangers does not disappoint, with Michael Russell skilfully blending together three interconnected storylines: Gillespie travelling to New York to bring back a young man suspected of murdering his mother; a revenge plot dating back to the civil war; and the IRA’s political manoeuvrings in the US and with German intelligence and the Irish response just prior to the Second World War. The result is a compelling, page-turner police procedural/political thriller. Indeed, Russell has done a fine job at punching all the right buttons - as well as a gripping plot, the characterisation is strong, the historical contextualisation excellent, and the sense of place well realised. Gillespie is a well penned and engaging lead, with a well developed back story. He is accompanied by a mix of fictional and real characters who are all alive on the page and whose interactions are nicely observed. There is a balanced blend of Irish and international politics, supported by some nice historical detail that is informative without swamping the story. And the reader is dropped into pre-war Wicklow, Dublin and New York. Overall, a very fine piece of crime fiction and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series.