Literary crime fiction melds Cold War, American film noir
Advanced praise compares ‘SHAMUS DUST’ to Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’
SHAMUS DUST (Troubador, October 28, 2019) features Newman, an American private investigator living and working as an expat in London – in the pulsing financial heart of the City to be exact, a single square mile, confined, claustrophobic, and hard on the outsider. Additionally, readers are met with a bold, diverse cast of women, including the temporary Forensic Medical Examiner. Kathryn Swinford is well-qualified, capable, and clear-eyed, a woman who knows her own mind. But even in the liberating aftermath of World War II, she’s a high-flying anomaly, treading warily in the men’s club of City money-making.
Two candles flaring at a Christmas crib. A nurse who steps inside a church to light them. A gunshot emptied in a man’s head in the creaking stillness before dawn, that the nurse says she didn’t hear. It’s 1947 in the snowbound, war-scarred City of London, where Pandora’s Box just got opened in the ruins; City Police has a vice killing on its hands, and a spooked councilor hires a shamus to help spare his blushes. Like the Buddha says, everything is connected. So it all can be explained. But that’s a little cryptic when you happen to be the shamus, and you’re standing over a corpse.
This is great – it’s elegant and spare but still cloaks itself in a terrific atmosphere. I liked the backstreet whores and the tipster barbers; the gold-leaf dining rooms and the tenement bedrooms. For me, it rang of Chandler – a grey-skied, British Big Sleep
– Atlantic Books
JANET ROGER: Janet is a writer and an avid fan of film noirs, those movies first crafted in Hollywood that span a golden decade from the mid-1940s. She calls film noir the “ground-breaking cinema of its time, peopled with an unforgettable cast of the era’s seen-it-all survivors, slick grifters, racketeers, the opulent and the corrupt.” She’s fascinated by the period, the generation that came through it, and the hardboiled detective fiction it inspired. SHAMUS DUST is her homage. Outside of writing, and life on a small island off the coast of Africa, she seeks out English-language bookstores wherever she goes. The audiobook for SHAMUS DUST proudly features the vocal talents of John Reilly (CBS Radio, The Disney Channel), whose reading captures the noir mood and rhythms beautifully. To learn more about SHAMUS DUST and Janet Roger, visit https://www.shamusdust.com/.
An Interview with
For readers who are unfamiliar with SHAMUS DUST, how would you describe this book?
London’s square mile of high finance – the City – at Christmastime 1947. An apparent vice killing spooks a City councilor into hiring Newman, an American private eye, who follows up two twisting trails. One takes him to the rackets, to a police murder investigation, and the City’s own grandees. The second takes him into the ruins left by wartime bombing, to make sense of what he’s finding out about his own client. Newman’s problem is that more killings cut off all avenues even as he joins up the dots, until he has choices to make: what to let go and who to let burn, in a square mile where the money always holds the aces.
SHAMUS DUST features Newman, an American PI, living and working in the City of London. What is important to know about his placement and displacement as an expat?
At the time of the story, Newman has been an American in London for nigh-on twenty years, having arrived there in the Depression era for the chance of a job in the City. He lands work as an insurance investigator, then spends his war attached to a British Army unit (tracking down military supply fraud, but that’s another story). War over, he's back in the City, going it alone as a gumshoe, one of very many Americans still around in postwar London, both in and out of uniform. In photos from those years you’ll see GIs everywhere on furlough, strolling Soho and Trafalgar Square, and while a civilian like Newman stands out less in a crowd, it’s not and never will be his town. There’s his accent obviously, his problem with tea-drinking and the everlasting island weather. But in the end, it’s the different manners and mores that keep any of us a little off-balance in a country that’s not our own. And for all Newman has known London half his lifetime, he’s no exception. He moves in a world that still feels slightly out of kilter, recognizable but always elusive. I think that vague sense of unease could be a key to the man.
Hard Winter. Cold War. Cool Murder. It’s the novel’s subtitle, and the mention of the Cold War gives the novel a contemporary feel, doesn’t it? What significance does the setting have for you?
You’re absolutely right, Cold War is in the air again. What’s more, the viciousness and brutalities of the original are revisited to marvelous effect in John Le Carré’s latest (A Heritage of Spies). I still have to remind myself that it’s almost three-quarters of a century since the chill first descended, so at one level, the way that the Cold War played out in ordinary lives will be new to a generation that – thankfully – didn’t have to experience it. Now it’s true that many of the characters winding through Shamus Dust (or through Le Carré for that matter) could hardly be called ordinary. Shamus Dust, after all, tells of a private investigation that cuts through official corruption, vice rackets, police protection and murder. Nonetheless it’s a story set against the regular pulse of a London recovering from war, in a period when dark and twisted is the new normal, and many of the conflicts and tensions we’re inured to now were already up and running. That said, let’s be absolutely clear: Shamus Dust is no superpower spy intrigue or licence-to-kill actioner. Its Cold War is simply the day-to-day backdrop for a hardboiled private-eye, who’s working a case that springs from events of his time. In fact, I think the story’s current relevance has just as much to do with its tale of well-heeled and influential people, willing and ready to cross any line that gets in their way. When things go awry, they spin a spider web of bald lies, cover-up and rat-run lawyering that turns ever more desperate and transgressive. Sounds familiar? Think of any one of the convictions recently brought in by Special Counsel Mueller. What could be more contemporary?
SHAMUS DUST revolves around the City, London’s financial heart, rather than in parts of the capital that readers are more likely to be familiar with. Why did you choose to set the story there?
Good question, and it’s true that the City does get overshadowed by the metropolis around it, both in books and in film, crime fiction included. Perhaps it’s because the City is geographically so small – a single square mile that corresponds roughly to the area inside London’s ancient Roman walls. Shamus Dust is mostly set in that square mile (Newman walks it constantly from end to end), and the intention is simply to let it be itself – confined, claustrophobic, secretive and resistant to the outsider. The City is and always has been run by its own corporation. Its politics and its policing follow different rules. And while Mayfair or Soho each has its take on more-or-less picturesque sleaze, the City is unquestionably where the money is. That alone made it an obvious location for Shamus Dust. A place, as Newman discovers, where a single high-risk fraud can propel a train of Christmas homicides.
What books have you been reading lately?
I live on a small island off the north Africa coast, so my first outing in any new city is to an English-language bookshop. I love the serendipity, and it can turn up some real gems. Recently it was Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. I came across it in a bookshop in Bucharest, which is where her story begins. Her heroine is newly arrived there when war is declared in 1939. Six books later – there’s a Levant Trilogy as well – her characters have taken you with them on a journey through Athens, Cairo and on into Palestine, always one step ahead of the war in southern Europe and north Africa. It’s special on many counts, particularly on the manners, mannerisms and casual prejudices of the times. And she’s an acute observer, trained as an artist, terrific on places, smells, sounds and color. A wonderful storyteller too (if you’re planning six volumes you’d better be). But there’s also another, more technical, reason. Olivia Manning lived through the period and the events. You can trust her on the vocabulary and idiom of those English expats marooned by war. The voices and gestures are of their time, and that’s most instructive when your own story is set in London in the same decade.
What are you writing next?
It’s a sequel to Shamus Dust called The Gumshoe’s Freestyle, set six months later in the City (of course), in the summer of ’48. Those immediate postwar years made interesting times. Freestyle ties up some loose ends, returns to some characters from the first story and develops with them. Actually, there’s a connection planted toward the close of Shamus Dust, though you do seriously have to know your Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of some oblique, passing link between two cases that Newman and Marlowe will never know they once shared an interest in. As for the second story itself, Freestyle stands on its own and takes our American in London on an entirely new investigation. Which makes it interesting to decide which characters you might want to go back to, how fleeting or important they need to be, and of course, how to introduce them to a reader who doesn’t already know them from the earlier story. Those can be tough decisions, especially when you’re getting excited by so many new and unexpected faces.