Ive got Janet Roger, author of the very good-looking novel, Shamus Dust, to talk about her book and a whole lot more. Enjoy.
Your book, Shamus Dust, set in a battered post-war London, is out on 28 October this year. What’s the story, in 30 words or less?
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.
I love the 40s London setting. What drew you to the city and the period?
Well, thank you. Shall we start with the City? Shamus Dust is set there at Christmas 1947, when – as it still is – the City of London was the financial heart of the capital, often simply known as the Square Mile. Think of it as London’s Wall Street. In fact, it genuinely is – even now – the more or less single square mile contained inside the arc of London’s ancient Roman walls, with the Thames running along its southern boundary. What drew me, was living and working there on a couple of occasions. You can walk the whole City very easily, and if you do that you inevitably get up close to its geography and history. As for period, those early years of Cold War fascinate me in general. But in the City something very special happens. It had taken a hammering in the London blitz. Hundreds of its acres – some of the most valuable real estate on the planet – were flattened rubble. Which made it an archaeologist’s dreamland. For a few short years, digging in those blitz sites gave them unimagined access to the two-thousand years old Roman city right beneath their feet. They wasted no time. Before reconstruction got seriously under way they’d made monumental discoveries: a Roman temple, a Roman fortress on the line of the wall, even the foundations of an arena – a Roman coliseum, no less. And there was the puzzle. The discovery of the temple and the fortress made instant splash headlines. Yet London’s very own Roman coliseum – yes, there really is one – got overlooked. Seriously, it completely escaped notice for the next almost forty years. Which started me wondering what the story was…
So this Pandora’s Box is an opening of Roman treasure which sets off murder and intrigue?
It was a window opened on that lost Roman arena. In the blitzed London of the early postwar it was stumbled on in the north of the City, on a construction site close by the current (vast) Barbican development. But the window closed again, and the coliseum’s existence – it’s an arena the size of a football field – simply got overlooked (!). The mistake is explained today as just one of those things, an oversight that went unnoticed until 1988, when the archaeological record was examined again. Once rediscovered, the Roman amphitheater was excavated for more than a decade, then opened to the public in a spectacular new gallery below ground (don’t miss it on a trip to London). Shamus Dust, of course, fills out the story differently. It goes back to those Cold War years, when rebuilding the City was up for grabs and fortunes were staked on the coming construction boom. In this telling, the real estate interests include high-end racketeers as well as corrupt City grandees, who think any delay on construction will be very bad karma indeed. Cue that monumental discovery on a construction site that no-one will get to hear of. Cue the apparent vice killing that gets Shamus Dust under way. And then cue the hardboiled gumshoe who gets hired as part of the cover-up.
Shamus, in the British sense refers to a policeman. In America the term was often a derogatory term for Irish cops, and now a private detective. Who’s your shamus and what motivates him?
You just told me something about the British use of shamus that I didn’t know. There’s also a rather lovely connection to Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe, arriving as immigrants into New York. If I can get this right, the shammes is the Synagogue’s house man – the eagle eye and the ear to the ground who’s meant to know what’s going down in the shtetl. So, when those European immigrants first came across the novel notion of a private eye, they simply reached for an equivalent (the shammes) from the old country. The question is, How Do You Say It? Near the beginning of The Big Sleep, Marlowe – Bogie himself – tells Carmen Sternwood he’s a Shahmus. On the other hand, near the end of Somewhere In the Night, Police Lieutenant Kendall (Lloyd Nolan) tells the chanteuse that her new squeeze is a Shaymus. Both films are from 1946, so you choose. Though it’s interesting that both Marlowe and the police detective have to explain that the word means private eye. As for Newman, he’s been an American in London for nigh-on twenty years, arrived in the Depression era for the chance of a job in the City. He turns insurance investigator, spends his wartime transferred to a British Army unit with his boss, tracking down military supply fraud (but that’s another story). War ended, he’s back in the City, going it alone as a gumshoe, motivated in Shamus Dust by a payday offered by a City councilor. Also motivating for him are a kingpin racketeer, some unsubtle policing, the necessary femme fatale and a temporary medical examiner who’s clearly out of his class. Which motivation wins out? It’s complicated.
Early reviewers have noted Shamus Dust’s Chandleresque hardboiled language, and you clearly love the old noir film classics. The setting and timeframe makes me think of the The Third Man. How important is the use of language to you? Do you have patience for Ellroy-style prose?
The Third Man! Well, I’m a fan of Graham Greene, love the movie and still buy a ticket anywhere it’s showing. And it’s true, the themes of Cold War rackets, displaced Americans, love and loss, are all there in Shamus Dust. Not to mention deep winter and the dark disillusion of the times. Language? A reviewer said of Shamus Dust recently, Imagine Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown, played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. Now, setting aside the compliment, that was interesting because Chinatown’s screenwriter is the Angeleno, Robert Towne, who says he loves what he calls Chandler’s lazy lyricism. So do I. For me, it’s the lyric prose that lifts the Marlowe stories out of the crime read and into the territory of the novel. It brings a unity and spaciousness. In a word, it lets them breathe. So yes, language is important. James Ellroy? But which James Ellroy? The one who writes The Black Dahlia, or the one sponsored by Western Union? I’m for The Black Dahlia, but prose style takes you, I think, into the bigger questions of how you write your historical fiction. I had a story set in 1947. A (subverted) Chandleresque seemed obviously suited as a way to tell it – after all, it’s when Marlowe is at his best. Now, the fact is that by now you have to historicize those years for your readers, so it won’t happen, but still, I’d love to leave them wondering when exactly in the 1940s Shamus Dust was written! You’ll know what I mean. James Ellroy is interested in just the same period I am, but sees his historical fiction very differently; language, chainsaws and all.
Is planting an American PI in London the natural thing to do? Would an English PI, in this timeframe, have stilted your rich prose? Made the tone more arch than street-level cynical?
The American shamus is a device, obviously. But as for natural or not, Americans – in and out of uniform – were everywhere in western Europe at the beginning of the Cold War. And in numbers, too. In London, Newman wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd. Some of his compatriots – Carole Landis, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles and others – were arriving there to star in British films noirs. No-one found that strange. But let’s go back to The Third Man. Trevor Howard’s terrific Major Calloway in that movie is a man cast in much the same mould as Newman (even if he is in uniform). But the problem is, I just can’t hear Shamus Dust being narrated by an Englishman of the time. English rhythms work against that Chandleresque lazy and lyrical. English cadences and manners play in the wrong key. And besides, it’s a story told from the outside. From police to racketeers, shell-shocked veteran to femme fatale, almost every character the American encounters is English. I wanted a reaction from someone who would find the English as strange and exotic then as we do now, from this distance in time. The American shamus answered the need.
You’ve talked about noir masters and the city’s they evoke: Lehane and Boston, Block and New York – are you aiming for Roger of London?
I love Roger of London. It sounds like a really swish Bond Street dress shop. Even so, I doubt it’s going to trouble Block or Lehane in the name recognition stakes. What they do in creating so powerful an image of their cities through fiction, is really remarkable; a PR agency couldn’t hope to promise as much. But truly staggering is how Simenon and Chandler have mythologized Paris and LA into a new century, for those who never heard of them just as much as for their enduring fans. These last two are not even native sons. Or is that their secret weapon? I think I might have a go with that dress shop idea.
I think of American noir as the protagonists and antagonists carrying guns, and English set noir as more knives and garrotes. Your world is as seedy as that across the pond, but how do the underworld figures threaten each other? How does the American view the English underworld?
You’re not alone in that, and it makes me wonder where the different images come from. Perhaps the English notion of gentleman-detectives leaves them thinking that in London a hit gets arranged over tea and muffins. Or perhaps Americans naturally think – since the cars are always bigger, the buildings are taller and the rich are richer – that their mob must be heavier and their cops tougher. As if a London heist is a more civilized affair, or the shakedown there is more refined. In 1947, London had an immense dockland and waterfront, a financial quarter, industry and commerce. In the early Cold War it also had severe shortages of everything (even more so than in wartime); an element of returning soldiery that didn’t fit back in; and a wave of sidearms liberated by the soldiery, who’d had six years’ familiarity with how to use them. In other words, every necessary ingredient for the rackets, as in New York, or in Los Angeles or in Chicago. When a gun is pulled in a British-made film noir of those years – many of them set in London – no-one blinks in astonishment. Likewise, many of the cops had military police experience (The Third Man’s Major Calloway is a Scotland Yard detective with a colonel’s rank in the original story). Newspapers of the day tell the same story of a dark, violent city. And after all, the mob on both sides of the Atlantic was going out to watch the same Jimmy Cagney movies. Perhaps the world’s been waiting for Shamus Dust to set the record straight.
Is Shamus Dust the beginning of a series, or a one-off? What’s next?
Not a series, but there is a sequel on the stocks. The Gumshoe’s Freestyle is set in the City of London (of course), in the summer of ’48. Those Cold War years made interesting times. Freestyle ties up some loose ends and returns to some characters from the first story. There’s even a lead-in planted near the close of Shamus Dust, though you do have to know your Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of some passing link between events that Newman and Marlowe will never know they shared an interest in. That said, Freestyle stands on its own and takes Newman to an entirely new case. It’s been interesting deciding which characters to go back to, how fleeting or important they need to be, and of course, how to introduce them to the reader who doesn’t already know them from the earlier story.
Janet, you’ve been a great guest. Any final words?
Only to thank you for your very kind invitation, and some out-of-the-ordinary questions. I really enjoyed the back and forth.
Shamus Dust reviewed by Kirkus Reviews.