A Postwar World Gone Sour
COLD WAR Breaking Out Again
Cold War breaking out again. A world gone sour. 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, how 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 spiderweb of bald lies, cover-up and rat-run lawyering that turns ever more desperate and transgressive.
In 1947, two years after the end of World War 2 and the same year that Shamus Dust is set, Gallup polled the British Public and asked what their no-expense-spared fantasy meal would be. Well it turned out that above all, most people in England wanted a good square meal like the ones they remembered before rationing started. But war was scarcely over, much of Europe was still in ruins, people homeless and starving. A world gone sour. So rationing in England not only continued but battened down tighter as food and clothing, already short in England, went to feed the people they'd been fighting. Heavy rains in the summer of 1946 ruined Britain's wheat crop - bread rationing started. Hard frosts and deep snows in the winter of 1946-1947 destroyed huge amounts of stored potatoes, vegetables and fruit - potato rationing started. Coal was in short supply and still rationed. Summer 1947 saw transport and dock workers out on strike, and until the Army broke the strike, much needed imported meat and fruit was left in warehouses or on dock sides to rot. Tea and sugar, eggs, meat and cheeses weren't freely available for another 7-9 years! Cigarettes though, you might smoke as many as you could afford or otherwise get hold of - all through the war and after, they were never rationed. "In winters before the war, Harry had kept a pool of hot grease in the fire all day long, frying eggs and bacon and bread in wedges thick enough to tile a roof with. Not anymore. Going into 1948, eggs were powder, bread was on ration and bacon wasn’t even a rumor. As for Fruits of Victory they were a menu item, just not in any restaurant I dined at. He stooped under the counter for a square of newsprint, made a cone and filled it with chestnuts, wearing so many layers under a long straight coat you didn’t see his knees bend. "Mr. Newman, if it gets me out of this weather, Attlee can pasteurize me".” Shamus Dust
OUT IN THE COLD Postwar Austerity
SLICK GRIFTERS Seen-it-all Survivors
I wrote a first draft of Shamus Dust at a time when I lived and worked in the City of London. Picking up again, many years later, there were aspects that struck me both as metaphor and elegy for a single, remarkable generation. It was a generation born to the Great War, raised in the Great Depression, sent to a cataclysmic war of its own; and when it returned to a world gone sour, created the miraculous shadow-play of film noir in its own image. It peopled this new and wholly original Hollywood genre with an unforgettable cast of slick grifters, seen-it-all survivors, racketeers, the opulent and the corrupt - men and women both, let’s be clear about that, and dressed to kill when they needed to be. I wanted to revive that cast in a story from the period that created it, complete with a private-eye narrator who is, I now see, simply a metaphor for the America I grew up with in fiction and onscreen. To this European raised in the first Cold War, those Eisenhower Americans seemed effortlessly pragmatic, tough, resilient, smart and subversive (not to say cool!). When absolutely necessary they even seemed to tote a moral compass. Shamus Dust puts one of them center-stage, and bangs a drum for qualities I was drawn to then and still am: to a certain uprightness, an insolence that’s at home with doubts, and a dry acceptance that the best of film noir had it right; that in the end it’s not about how you can win, but only how you can lose more slowly.
EARLY COLD WAR Trouble in the Air
"Right now there were Soviets in Berlin, Communists in Manchuria, Zionists in Palestine. And the Americans on Bikini Atoll weren’t there for the beaches or the coconuts. But in the end, those were just headlines in the foreign pages. The City of London had troubles of its own. It had an empire waving goodbye, a currency stepping off a cliff, and some high-toned citizens with singular tastes and private arrangements they couldn’t buy off anymore. Berlin and Bikini passed over their heads. What walked them through my door were the tastes and the private arrangements. A chrome-plated address on Snow Hill made no difference. They would have found me anywhere." Shamus Dust "In one paragraph, Janet Roger has given us everything we need to know about the world of Shamus Dust, a hard-boiled noir mystery set in 1947 London featuring an American private investigator named Mr. Newman. To state the old writing adage, the above paragraph shows rather than tells us the condition of postwar London, a city that has survived, now working its way through the rubble, not all of which is physical. Yet removing the remnants of the war’s devastation cannot remove the desires and passions of the heart." Andy Wolverton, Staffwriter, The Dark Pages, Film Noir Newsletter.