Book review: The City in Darkness

The City in Darkness begins not in the city or even in darkness, but with an early morning swim in Co Wicklow lake. 

Michael Russell

Constable, €23.40

It is a sunny August day in 1932 but the idyllic scene is soon shattered when the swimmer, the wife of Detective Inspector Stefan Gillespie, is mysteriously drowned.

It is assumed to be a tragic accident but as the book develops her husband realises, seven years later on, that it was probably murder and that a missing postman is somehow embroiled in the whole affair.

Michael Russell is an experienced writer with television credits to his name, having written for The Bill, Midsommer Murders and the last ever episode of A Touch of Frost.

Since leaving ITV to write full time he has been living in Co Wicklow and working on novels, this book is the third Stefan Gillespie novel and like the others it is a gripping thriller moving effortlessly from rural Ireland to Dublin and on to war-torn Europe.

Russell’s focus on the Emergency years allows him to explore the ongoing power struggle in Ireland and, as the Second World War develops, the impact of events on the continent and beyond.

The success of historical crime fiction depends not just on the plotline, but also on the accurate recreation of a particular time and place. Russell’s book does this superbly, evoking a sense of danger and suspicion around every corner.

When the story moves to parts of Spain and Portugal the streets are described with meticulous detail. 

Gillespie’s walk across Lisbon, for example, is described street by street with an unusual attention to detail from the high-ceilinged Avenida Palace Hotel near the Barrio Alto to the soft-top Citroen taxi waiting in the street.

Russell also weaves in trips to Burgos, Salamanca and other parts of Spain successfully linking several stories at the same time.

Similarly, the tensions of the era are echoed in the way the story links not only the strife in Ireland, but also the Spanish Civil War and its ongoing repercussions.

Russell also manages to use actual people and events to help give an air of authenticity to the narrative. The missing postman aspect of the story is drawn from the still unsolved true-life disappearance of postman Larry Griffin in the village of Stradbally on Christmas Day, 1929.

In both cases the community refuses to co-operate with the outside investigations but in Russell’s novel the missing man’s notes and newspaper cuttings provide the clue that Gillespie needs to connect his wife’s drowning with the deaths of others and the vanishing of the postman himself.

Elsewhere, an encounter with Michael MacLiammoir and the closure of a play at the Gate is taken from the actor’s own autobiography, All for Hecuba.

All these elements combine to make The City in Darkness a powerful and atmospheric thriller.

Russell’s storytelling leads to a satisfying conclusion. Combine this with mysterious goings-on with Stefan’s boss, Terry Gregory, and a convincing depiction of Dublin in the Emergency and this results in a thriller of the highest order.

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