When I set out to write The City of Shadows, the first of a series of historical crime novels set in Ireland before and during the Second World War, the aim was first to tell a good tale, hopefully, but also to explore that time, to look at Ireland’s often compromised ‘neutrality’ and to ‘visit’ some other cities that played a role in the war. In The City of Shadows that city was German Danzig in 1935 (now Polish Gdańsk, a change that tells its own tale!) and now in the latest Stefan Gillespie story, The City of Strangers, it is New York, where Stefan finds the looming war in Europe already being fought in the streets.
Telling a good story and exploring ‘the times’ in ways that take you off the beaten track is what historical crime fiction is all about. And they were strange times, as British and German spies sat at adjacent table in Dublin bars, and Ireland’s odd neutrality was best summed up by the fact that German aircrew landing in Ireland were interned for the duration of the war, while Allied aircrew were given a pint and put on the train to Belfast! But creating the sense of those times is a bit like writing about a foreign country. It’s not big things that really tell you what it feels like to be there, it’s the small things. To find a sense of history, you need a real sense of place, whether that place is Dublin and the mountains of West Wicklow, the dark alleyways of Danzig, or the towers of New York.
And although Stefan Gillespie’s investigations take him far from home, it is always in the grey streets of Dublin and the green lanes of West Wicklow that the stories have their heart. A sense of place and a real sense of the past went hand in hand when I was writing, partly because the stories often involve, behind the bodies and the action that is the stuff of crime fiction, a search for memory and belonging, in an Ireland still struggling to find out, as a newly independent nation, exactly what kind of country it really wanted to be.
In both The City of Strangers and The City of Shadows, I wanted Dublin in the 1930s to be real, a place you could see and feel. A place you could even find your way around. The first book starts with a man walking along the Liffey at night. Close to the end, on another night, Stefan Gillespie walks down O’Connell Street and over the Liffey too. The city is everywhere in between. In The City of Strangers Stefan finds himself looking at the bloody evidence of a murder in Herbert Place. Later he walks through the city from Bewley’s in Grafton Street to the Four Courts Hotel that once stood by the river. Dublin and its surroundings play a major part in the books that is almost that of a character. Kingsbridge Station (now Heuston), Clanbrassil Street, Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park, the Shelbourne, Harold’s Cross, Corbawn Lane in suburban Shankill, the Gate Theatre, Neary’s in Chatham Street, Merrion Square, the CID offices at Dublin Castle, Dorset Street, the Four Courts, Henrietta Street. Already a long list, but it’s really much longer.
In the process of writing about these places I have taken pleasure in making sure that much of the time shops and pubs that are mentioned are the ones that were really there, using the extraordinary door-stop-size book that is Thom’s Directory of Ireland. It doesn’t matter to the story, but it matters to the spirit of the story. One of the things I quickly found about writing historical fiction is that you can’t play with the past the way you can with the present. Readers expect historical fiction to be, well, historical! If you’re going to ‘stretch’ that history you need to be sure the facts behind it all will stand up.
Part of what I have written about Dublin, as about West Wicklow and the hills above Baltinglass, is unashamedly a celebration of places that matter to me, places I love. But it was only really when I started writing my second book, The City of Strangers, that I realised that the strange familiarity I felt with the streets of Dublin in the first half of the twentieth century, went deeper than I had remembered. I realised that my own sense of ‘knowing’ those dark, often rainy, foggy streets, had been left in my head, generally forgotten for most of my life, by my grandmother. She was born in Moville at the very end of the nineteenth century and lived through both the War of Independence and the Civil War in Ireland, before emigrating to England in search of work in the late 1920s.
When I was very young she told me stories about Ireland, about Donegal and Armagh and about the years she worked in Dublin. They were stories that often involved ‘the echo of the Thompson gun’ and assassinations, Black and Tans and Volunteers, gruesome deaths and miraculous escapes, black streets it was dangerous to walk at night. There were few of my childhood friends in England whose grandparents’ stories could compete with the murder and mayhem of mine! But it was a long time ago, and they had slipped to the back of my mind, even when I found myself living in Ireland and raising my children there. But they hadn’t gone away. And when I walked the dark streets of old Dublin with Stefan Gillespie… well, I think my grandmother was probably there to show us the way.
I hope The City of Strangers is, above all, a tale to give readers who like ‘mystery’ and ‘history’ enjoyment. A body on an Irish beach; a brutal murder in middle-class Dublin; a man falling from thirty storeys from a Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park; a woman running for her life. But it is also a celebration of two great cities at a fascinating time in their history, Dublin and New York in 1939. New York was, of course, the third largest ‘Irish’ city in the world at that time, but then New York is another story…