‘Shamus Dust’ by Janet Roger

Three things make ‘Shamus Dust’ a compelling book: the Chandleresque descriptions that Newman, Janet Roger’s American investigator in the City of London, uses to distil his view of the world; the detailed and credible evocation of the City Of London in 1947, bomb-scarred, hungry for profit and determined to protect and extend privilege; and the way in which Newman uncovers the truth of who killed whom and why by scraping away layer after layer of deceit, misdirection, and violence that has been used to bury it.

I was impressed by the way Janet Roger combined her storytelling ability with her detailed understanding of how the City Of London was in 1947 to bring the City to life. There where no look-at-the-research-that-I’ve-done infodumps, just clearly drawn pictures of people, the places and the politics that an observant outsider would have made in 1947. Being an American makes Newman an outsider but he’s been in London since 1929 and so he’s very aware of the damage the war did to the City.

I know the modern City and Canary Wharf reasonably well and it helped me that Janet Roger used landmarks that I recognise, like the Church of St. Bartholomew and the Great Eastern Hotel and helped me to imagine them surrounded by bomb-flattened lots. I went looking for some pictures of the City in 1947 and found that Janet Roger had already collated them in a history tab on her website. They’re fun to look at after you’ve read the book.

The plot in ‘Shamus Dust’ exploits attributes of the place and time that give it a gritty realism. There’s no nostalgia here. This isn’t a London I would want to live in. She draws on the fact that the City of London Police was and is separate from the Met, reporting directly to the City Of London Corporation Court of Common Council to give the Councilmen the possibility of using the police as muzzled muscle. She shows how the criminalisation of the gay community created opportunities for blackmail and corruption. She deals with the pressure that it always brought to bear by men who play high-stakes games with other people’s money and she captures that City at a moment when its past has been lost and its future is uncertain. A bit like today, actually.

The heart of the book, the person that brings the different strands together and frames the architecture of the book is Newman. He’s not a man who is prone to introspection about his own desires or fears. Nor does he offer neatly–packaged chunks of his history to the people around him. He listens more than he speaks and watches more than he listens. We discover him the way he discovers what’s really happening in a case: by watching closely and making connections that are never articulated.

I think the most revealing thing about Newman is the way in which he describes the world to himself. His similes at first seemed similar to the way someone like Philip Marlowe thinks but I soon saw that their terms of reference were more European and more educated than Marlowe’s. Newman puts on a hard-boiled American Shamus attitude as easily as shrugging into an overcoat but it’s an adornment, perhaps even a disguise, rather than a statement of identity. Newman’s thoughts and actions are characterised by a sort of pragmatic lyricism and a disappointed romanticism. His persistence is not motivated by money or even by the expectation of justice. He seems to be driven in equal measure by a hope that he can make things better or stop them becoming worse and by his disdain for the grubby, greedy, venality that is trying to extinguish his hope.

‘Shamus Dust’ is a book where the quality of the writing was a big part of my enjoyment. I found myself highlighting so many things that I was in danger of highlighting the whole book.

I think the best way to give you an impression of the book and an insight into Newman is to share some quotes with you.

Here’s Newman describing his insomnia as becoming reacquainted with

nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumors of first light, and know that when finally they arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make. It was five-thirty, the ragged end of a white night, desolate as a platform before dawn when the milk train clatters through and a guard tolls the names of places you never were or ever hope to be. I was waiting on the fluting angels when the telephone rang.

Newman’s status as an outsider is established by his memory of his Australian boss for whom he did insurance fraud investigation in the City, saying:

Look, Newman, as far as the locals are concerned, we’re both colonials. The difference is my lot play cricket with them and all is forgiven. Your lot are the tired and huddled masses that rhyme tomato with Plato, and every living Limey thinks baseball is a game for girls. Can’t argue about the baseball, though.

This is how Newman describes his situation at the start of the book, when he’s seen the murder scene and started to suspect he’s being set up for something by someone:

It wasn’t complicated. Not more than an early morning call from a City grandee, a nurse who came across her neighbor dead or dying before dawn on Christmas Day, and the dead neighbor’s latchkeys in my hand. That and the voice that always whispers in my ear, soft as telling a rosary, that for every reason I might think I have for mixing in a murder, there are ten better reasons to walk away. I crossed the angle of the court, fitted one of the keys in its lock and gave it a quarter turn. As for the voice that whispers, I hear it every time I step uninvited into an unlit room. The trick is not to let it start a conversation.

Having lived in Switzerland and Belgium this description by Newman of how the room of an excessively neat and organised man, Garfield, has been searched made me smile:

‘with a thoroughness that didn’t just look impressive, it looked frantic. As if Garfield’s special brand of orderliness had sent somebody over the edge, the way a Belgian will feel when he first sets eyes on Switzerland.'” 

Then there is Newman’s assessment of his own mental process once he gets time to take a breath and think:

But thinking is like putting ice on a hangover; when finally you get around to it, you know you should have tried it sooner.

And Newman’s ruggedly lyrical way of seeing the world:

Downhill a goods train clattered over Ludgate as if somebody was tossing beer crates off the bridge. Passers-by shied from a wind filled with needles, and the church behind me rippled in the plate glass of the Beaufort offices, drowning at the bottom of a pool.

And how he describes listening to silence on the phone at the end of an unpleasant conversation

I listened to it the way you look skyward on a rainy day, as if it changes anything. I was still listening when Willard cut the line.

I recommend this book to you. I hope Janet Roger gives us many more like this.

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