in the City of London
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.
CITY OF LONDON Dark & Violent
A reader once asked me why American noir featured guns and English noir used knives and garrotes. It set me wondering why the different perception. Perhaps the English notion of gentleman-detectives leaves Americans thinking that in London a hit gets arranged over tea and muffins. Or perhaps they 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.
City of London tends to 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, the shamus in our story, 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. A good setting for classic noir. 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 unstoppable events and makes the City ideal for Cool Murder.
HIGH-STAKES FRAUD Gone Badly Wrong
The winter that brought in 1947 was truly a monster of heavy snows. And incidentally, while it was no consolation for Londoners already coping with food and fuel shortages, those snowfalls laid a magic carpet over the blitzed city and made a rare treat for the cameras. You’ll see it in newsreels and news magazines of the time - level fields of white running alongside St Paul’s, bombed-out desolation disguised as Swiss meadows, church spires frosted like wedding cake. They’re very arresting images - of a cityscape under wraps until winter’s end - and they struck me as a metaphor for the private investigation at the heart of Shamus Dust. Ultimately it’s the story of a high-stakes fraud gone badly wrong, blanketed by a sequence of murder, intimidation and silence to disguise the true shape of things. Only when PI Newman raises the temperature does a thaw set in, to reveal the jagged landscape beneath the surface for what it really is.
"Shamus Dust. 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."