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Post-war England, 1947

Hard Winter | Cold War

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It’s Christmas Day 1947. Around midnight in Trafalgar Square. GIs are sliding on the ice in frozen fountains, goofing with their girls, while Newman stands looking skyward into the inky night, thinking about the fix he’s in. What he’s looking up at is a giant Christmas tree, a gift from Norway to Britain, for sacrifices made during six years of war. (It’s traditional by now. Norway has sent London a yuletide tree every year since.) The tree’s branches are filled with electric lights sparking against the winter blackness, and that makes it quite a sight for Londoners on two counts. For one thing there had been regulations against cutting down any tree at all in wartime, let alone one intended simply for holiday decoration. For another, Britain didn’t have electricity enough to light and heat its streets and homes, so sparing some to spread Christmas cheer in Trafalgar Square was something very special. All life seemed to revolve around rationing. For six years practically every food and home comfort had been strictly controlled, and things had gotten no easier since peace broke out. On the contrary, they were only getting tougher. In 1947 bread was on ration - something Britain hadn’t seen even in wartime - so that more of its harvest could go to feed a broken Europe. Times were the hardest. But was there no silver lining at all? Well yes there was, if you happened to rank in the black markets, and as Newman follows a lengthening trail of homicides there’s a name he keeps running up against; one well-connected, well-protected prince of the rackets, with no plans to go cold or hungry in this or any other deep midwinter. 


This is one to own up to right away. Shamus Dust runs most of its course in the City of London, over ten wintry days at Christmas and New Year 1947/8. There’s heavy snowfall, a grinding cold, and a killer wind blowing in from Siberia. So let me confess, the weather is a fiction too. That said, there really was a brutal winter in those postwar years, chill enough to break all British records and cause all sorts of havoc and misery. Immense blizzards went on and on. The seas froze. Ice floes were spotted off the English east coast! And to cap it all, when the snowmelt did finally arrive, devastating floods piled on the agony. In truth though, that was the previous winter and spring of 1946/7. And since Shamus Dust starts out twelve months later for reasons of the story’s timeline, I cheated with the weather. For one thing, there are haunting press photographs of the bombed-out City under snow that make it an unmissable setting (see the picture). For another, the snow isn’t only deep and crisp, it’s even necessary for the tale. Besides, I wanted Newman’s London and Marlowe’s Los Angeles to be chalk and cheese. They’re both Americans of course, each making his own version of a gumshoe’s living in the big city. But while one sweats out his cases in a stifling California he calls home, the other freezes through the bitterest winter in an age, nosing around an incongruous murder in an alien town.

Bombed Out London 1942© IWM (D 6412)
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The City not the city? Where’s the difference? Well, the City of London is that teeming financial square mile at the ancient heart of the capital, London’s version of Wall Street. Already by the time of the second world war it was a place devoted to red-blooded trading, where almost nobody actually lived. (And just as well. A third of it was destined to be bombed flat in a single night of the blitz.) For that reason, crime in the City was likely to be very highly specialized and definitely white-collar: the shamus has it that ordinarily you stood a better chance of getting shot at in a lighthouse. And then on Christmas Day, out of nowhere, City Police has a homicide on its hands. City Police? Yes indeed. In 1947 the City Corporation maintained a force of more than a thousand officers, accountable to itself alone, just as it had been for centuries. Meanwhile the jurisdiction of London’s Metropolitan Police - of any rank whatever - ended at the City’s boundaries. So, as Christmas turns to New Year and the killings keep coming, they’re treated as an entirely internal matter for the best-policed square mile on the planet. Except that a gumshoe took a call before dawn that Christmas morning, and lifted an eyebrow at a murder that didn't add up. The rest is pure Shamus Dust. By the way, walk the City’s streets nowadays and you’ll see that it's in part become residential again. As for the Corporation's long history of policing itself, its time was called in the 1970s.


By the time of our story the shamus has 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 lands a spot there as an insurance fraud investigator, then spends his wartime transferred to a  British Army unit with his boss, tracking down military supply fraud (but that’s another story). War over, he’s returned to the City and going it alone as a gumshoe. There was nothing unusual in that. After VJ plenty of Americans had stayed on in (western) Europe, in and out of uniform, and London was no exception. Of course the civilian Americans aren’t so easy to tell in a crowd, but in photographs from those years you’ll see any number of GIs strolling Soho and Trafalgar Square on furlough. Not that Newman will ever pass as a Londoner. There’s the accent obviously, his problem with tea-drinking and the everlasting island weather; but in the end what keeps even the practiced outsider off-balance are the fine-tuned manners, mores and casual prejudices of the natives. It puts me in mind of the way I watch those marvellous films noirs from the same period; how completely familiar and still how strange that world of noir can seem. For me the sense of dislocation is a part of the magnetism, and perhaps after all it’s what holds Newman in Cold War London, prowling its gilded society along with its mean streets. Incidentally, the films themselves are constantly being rediscovered, often in fine restorations by the Film Noir Foundation, in Turner Classic Movies’ fabulous Noir Alley slot, hosted by Eddie Muller.

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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.

Photo Credits:

Trafalgar Square 1947 | N.T. Stobbs

Hard Winter, London | Imperial War Museum, London

The City of London  | Imperial War Museum, London 

An American in London I The Big Lift 1950

A World Gone Sour | The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946

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