In The City of Shadows, we are given an insight into Ireland, specifically Dublin, in the build-up to WWII. I myself had very little prior knowledge of this period in Ireland, and was surprised to learn about the strong influence of Nazism, the strength of the Catholic Church and the hostility against homosexuals. More well-informed readers may be more familiar with this history, and would probably warn me not to take it as given, as this is nonetheless a fictional work.
Through Stefan Gillespie’s investigation, in which he discovers the bodies of Vincent Walsh and Susan Field, Hannah Rosen’s friend, we are taken to Danzig and back, delving into the darkest corners of life. These are not the only two deaths we encounter in The City of Shadows, as institutional corruption in the government, the police and the church uncovers bribery, blackmail and a lack of consideration for the value of human life.
The pastoral location of West Wicklow, Stefan’s childhood home, is also explored, where Tom, his son, now lives with his grandparents. Here lies the underlying subplot: a fight for justice. The local priest attempts to send Tom away, owed to the views of his Protestant father and his late Jewish mother. This battle illustrates the fragility of human nature, as Stefan becomes a product of the evil against which he is fighting.
Meanwhile, the love affair between Stefan and Hannah Rosen, a Jewish friend of the deceased Susan, is tested by the discriminatory society and by distance, as she travels to Danzig and later follows her Jewish roots to Palestine.
I felt somewhat disappointed with the conclusion of the novel, which was not as romantic or ideal as I had expected; nevertheless, it is a realistic ending to a gripping mystery novel, into which Michael Russell cleverly weaves the history of the era. An excellent debut by an author from whom I hope to hear more in the coming years.