Paperback review: The City of Strangers, by Michael Russell


A historical thriller about an Irish police detective despatched to New York to bring back a murder suspect on the eve of the Second World War, The City of Strangers is a rich and addictive brew.

It begins with a scene of Grand Guignol horror, before easing into a complex but compelling plot involving Nazis, gay actors, the IRA, the FBI, a Jewish gangster, a woman held captive in a sanatorium, secret codes, kidnap, revenge killings, a plot to assassinate George V, and the long, long arm of the past. Real-life characters rub shoulders with fictional creations and hybrids. Russell employs a fair number of the usual tropes – his hero, Sergeant Stefan Gillespie, is a strong silent type, sensitive and sympathetic with secret sorrows in his life, underestimated and abused by his superiors.

But it works: I found myself rooting fervently for this intelligent, dignified, half-German half-Irish, world-weary but thoroughly decent ’tec. And besides the conventional elements, there is plenty to surprise here. I had no idea that the IRA and the Nazis made common cause, and that Irish Americans were desperate to keep the USA out of the war.

The recreation of the period – the radio broadcasts, the flying boats, the jazz music, the Irish cops, poetry by Louis McNiece, the heavy drinking – is utterly vivid and convincing: it’s like jumping into a time machine. And the sense of place is strong: the contrast between Gillespie’s placid patch in the wilds of County Wicklow, and the buzz and glare, parades and skyscrapers of New York, is beautifully done.

Michael Russell’s style is also a pleasure: easy, fluent, clear, always calm and never over-heated. The result is an exciting comfort read, which sounds like a paradox, but isn’t.