How did you come up with the idea for Shamus Dust, and for your character Newman?
Well, strictly as a title, it comes from a line in the novel, also used in the epigraph. It goes:
She said, How on earth did he get here? As if all you ever do is sprinkle shamus dust, and the police suspect of the year floats in.
Beyond that, the period private-eye treatment is ultimately a device. The simple fact is, I’d been intrigued by a real-world story that just happened to take place in London in the early postwar, (the book’s subtitle is Hard Winter. Cold War. Cool Murder). It was a big story, but one that seemed almost stranger than fiction to me. So, perhaps because I was raised in History and Eng. Lit., I began thinking that fiction might be a more satisfying way to tell it.
The question was, how? And from there it was a fairly short step to the hardboiled mystery genre that, in the hands of Raymond Chandler, had been a literary phenomenon of those times. I’d known and adored his Marlowe novels since I was a teenager (such a break from the heavyweight reading I took home!). And of course, part of the deal was that the genre gave me a shamus, a private eye, to unfold the mystery as I saw it. Of course, there are other parts of the deal too. If you’re serious about Chandler as your point of departure, then the shamus is going to be your first person narrator, you’ll also need a femme fatale, the city has to work as a character in the story and the writing requires a certain bravura. And so on. You put in the notes that strike those chords and that help - I hope - to make it fun. Shamus Dust is essentially a very dark tale, but at the same time I was delighted when a recent reviewer said that …it offers up a seemingly endless supply of smiles.
One last thing about Newman, the shamus. He’s an American in London (for almost twenty years when the story begins), and I get asked about that. The thing is, Shamus Dust just couldn’t be narrated by an Englishman of the time. English rhythms work against the Chandleresque lyric. 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 then as strange and exotic as we do now, from this distance in time. The American shamus answered the need.
Why did you choose to set the book in 1947 London, and did you need to do much research to write the novel?
Let’s start with the City. Shamus Dust is set there at Christmas 1947, when - as it still is - the City of London was 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.
As for the period setting, the 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 archaeologists’ 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 didn’t waste time, and before reconstruction got under way they 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!
Shamus Dust, of course, tells the tale 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 and corrupt City grandees, who see any delay on construction as very bad karma indeed. Cue that monumental discovery on a construction site that no-one will get to hear about. Cue also the apparent vice killing that gets Shamus Dust under way. And then cue the shamus who gets hired as part of the cover-up.
Research? Well, in the long-gone pre-internet years I had two separate spells in the City, so I was breathing the air (and noticing the last scars of wartime bombing still hidden away in corners). There was also the marvelous Museum of London, Guildhall Library, and the bookstores and second-hand book bazaars everywhere. And though I don’t really see myself as a painstaking researcher - hands up - I’m basically incapable of passing by a museum. Having a story to follow was simply a great excuse.
You wrote that "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." What connections do you see between your story and today's headlines?
When I wrote that, the Robert Mueller inquiry was in full swing in the United States. Since then, well you could choose your headline from so many parts of the world. The connection I had in mind was to Newman’s City of London in those Cold War years. Historically, the City’s grandees had played a long game, removing by degrees the checks and balances on their room for maneuver; until by 1947 their single square mile was the most powerful financial concentration on the planet, mostly self-governing, and owner of the considerable force that policed it. The law was its own, as Newman discovers. There’s a moral in there about the rest of us giving up ground on the checks and balances.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Let me tell you about a visit I made to the History Center Saint Paul, Minnesota, because it made me realize why the Shamus Dust period has so long fascinated me. Now, if I were to tell you that the History Center has a gallery on the third floor called Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, which generation would you think they had in mind? Personally, I guessed at pioneer tales of the mid-West, or the harnessing of the giant Mississippi (thrilling - there are no rivers at all in my adopted country, not even a year-round stream). But I couldn’t have been more wrong. For Minnesota, its greatest generation was born in the shadow of the Great War and raised in the pit of the Great Depression; it passed its teenage in the New Deal and the Dust Bowl years and then, when the very hardest times began easing, learned for the first time where Pearl Harbor was. So its young and fit shipped out to fight across oceans. Upped and migrated to find war production work. And four years later, those who came back were braced for A-bombs, the Cold War and Korea. Any one of those upheavals would have left its mark. The women and the men we’re talking about had run the gamut by the time they’d reached their thirties.
Of course, it was never only Minnesota’s greatest generation. Neither was it uniquely American. The same string of early-twentieth century calamities put whole populations through the same grinder worldwide. That generation was growing old all around me when I was far too young to know what it had come through, or the questions I could have asked at the time. Which I suppose makes Shamus Dust, among other things, a small, personal homage I’d be glad to share.
What are you working on now?
A sort of sequel. 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.
This interview was first published in Books Q&A by Deborah Kalb14 December 2019