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Paul Burke interview: Janet Roger talking about Shamus Dust

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Well, I had two spells of living and working in and around the City of London, where the history is so crammed to overflowing it’s hard to escape if you’re that way inclined. I am. Long ago, among other things, I was also an Eng. Lit. graduate, which can either inspire you to write fiction of your own or daunt you because you’re aware of what went before. I was in the daunted camp.


I’m curious about how Shamus Dust came about. Which came first: Newman, the story or the location/time?

Shamus Dust is spun out of events that intrigued me when I fell across them, in one of those involuntary history lessons you take on any walk through the City. The intrigue related to the early Cold War years, when hundreds of acres - some of the most valuable real estate on the planet - were still flattened rubble. The City at that time was waiting urgently on rebuilding. Fortunes were staked on the coming construction boom. And then an apparently innocent, but nonetheless colossal misstep gets made. I was curious about what exactly went on. Newman is the American shamus who stumbles on the same misstep, and comes to be as curious about it as I was. He’s simply the device that recasts the story to its own time and place.


Shamus Dust is set in London and the City in 1947. What attracted you to that time and place?

In fact the events the story spins from happened a few years later. But I wanted the recent wartime to feel closer, to reference the shortages everywhere, and the threat of renewed conflict in the air. The excruciating winter likewise belongs to 1946/7. Not, as Shamus Dust has it, over Christmas and New Year of 47/48. Those blizzard landscapes are stunning in the photos and newsreels of the time, so I borrowed them. A recent reviewer wrote: Imagine Polanski's masterpiece, Chinatown played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London. Quite apart from the wonderful compliment, yes, on reflection there are parallels. One of them is that time displacement. To set Chinatown in 1938, Robert Towne’s screenplay moves the California Water Wars forward more than twenty years, to marvellous effect. Shamus Dust moves its story a mere five or so years back.


It might not be the post-war London that many people recognise. Did you set out to expose the underbelly of the city, the hypocrisy and corruption of the time, the stuff hidden behind the veneer of respectability?

It’s not meant as a specific barb at the City. These were dark times everywhere. Or, as Newman says, "Trouble was in the air". An entire generation that had come through Depression and a world conflict, was bracing for Cold War, Korea and the A-bomb. It’s no coincidence that these are the years that created films noirs (another fascination of mine) or that audiences were queuing to see those movies anywhere there was a picture show. The prevailing mood was tough, cynical and disillusioned. Corruption was expected. Cinema audiences weren’t going along hey-ho with sugar-coated anymore. As in Hollywood, in Argentina, Japan and stops in between, there were British-made films noirs (some even set in the City of London) that nailed the same dark desperation. Movie-goers anywhere would have recognized the London they portrayed. And the London of Shamus Dust, for that matter.


You must enjoy researching the post-war period. Can you tell us a little about your process?

Shamus Dust came out of that time in London I spoke of, so at the time of writing we’re talking pre-internet search. It was years later that the first draft reached the top of the pile again, and I had time to take another look. Basically, I can’t walk past a museum or a bookstore, and for Shamus Dust I had the Museum of London and Guildhall Library right on the doorstep. They were a treasure trove for getting the back story. I haven’t returned except in passing, but last time I looked there seemed fewer of those irreplaceable second-hand book bazaars than before. Sign of the times no doubt, but it’s a shame.


Shamus Dust is narrated by an American PI, Newman. Did you chose him because of a love of hardboiled crime fiction? Is he modelled on Marlowe or Spade?

Hardboiled was simply the device that seemed best fitted for the Cold War setting. After all it’s 1947, when Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is at his best. But it’s much more about the narrative style than about Marlowe. To return to Robert Towne, who’s an Angeleno himself, he says that it’s the lazy lyricism of Chandler that he loves. I’d go along with that. For me, it brings a unity and spaciousness to the Marlowe stories that lifts them out of the crime read and into the territory of the novel. In a word, it lets them breathe. (There’s more on this in my Atmospheric Pressure: The Big Sleep at Eighty, for CrimeReads later this month.) There are also some very attractive qualities attaching to the Marlowe who guides us through the yarns. But unless it subverts, pastiche fast becomes a deadweight. And in hardboiled fiction there’s plenty to subvert. There could be (there probably is) a doctoral thesis in this. But in brief and in general, hardboiled writing of the early Cold War - like the world it springs from -  has  a problem seeing rounded characters that aren’t straight and white and male. Chandler very much included. For example, women in those films noirs from the same era can be miraculously more nuanced, perhaps simply because in the end the roles have to brush up against a woman.


Newman is an outsider. What do you think he brings to the story because he isn’t bound by the ‘rules’ or by a British perspective?

Having Newman as an American in London really wasn’t about freeing him up from the local rules. You feel that Calloway, for example (Graham Greene’s very English military policeman in The Third Man) is cast pretty much in the Newman mould, even in uniform. The problem is that I just can’t hear Shamus Dust being narrated by an Englishman of the time. English rhythms and cadences work against lazy and lyrical. English manners play in the wrong key. Besides, it’s a story told from the outside. From police to racketeers, shell-shocked veteran to femme fatale, practically every character the shamus encounters is English. I wanted the reaction from someone who  would find them as strange and exotic then as we do now, from this distance in time. The American shamus answered that need (as well as some others). After all, in Cold War London his compatriots, civilian and military, were an everyday part of the scenery. Some - Carole Landis, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles and others - had even started arriving in the capital to play the leads in British films noirs.

Is Shamus Dust the beginning of a series? If it is, can you tell us anything about what will come next?

Not a series, but there is a sequel on its way called The Gumshoe’s Freestyle. It’s set in the summer of ’48, ties up some loose ends and develops some characters from the first story. There’s a connection planted near the close of Shamus Dust, though you really need to know your Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of an oblique link between cases that Newman and Marlowe will never know they share an interest in. That said, Freestyle gives Newman an entirely new case and will stand alone. It’s been interesting deciding which characters to revisit, how fleeting or important they’ll be, and of course, how to introduce them to readers who don’t already know them from the earlier story.


What are you reading at the moment? Is there anyone you would particularly recommend to NB Magazine readers?

I’m reading Maigret’s Memoirs, which came as quite a surprise, even though memoirs do tend to be in the first person don’t they? But after years of reading Maigret through the eyes of Simenon, it’s startling to be confronted by the retired Chief Inspector himself, describing the fresh-faced journalist M. Simm - Simenon himself, of course - who’s there to interview, then to invent, and then to shape the legend. What’s startling at first becomes the special pleasure of hearing Maigret at last in his own voice. Remembering as a young boy, for example, how the ice crystals felt in his father’s reddish-blond whiskers as he kissed him. Maigret as told by Simenon was always captivating enough. Maigret as told by Maigret can be quite magical.

This interview was first published in NB Magazine by Erin Britton 10 October 2019
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