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BV Lawson interview: Janet Roger talking about Shamus Dust

How did Shamus Dust come to be?

Well, that’s going back a while. Let me explain. It’s a novel written and then set aside in a drawer - well in a computer file, it wasn’t quite that long ago - then looked at again years later when I had some time to reflect on it. That initial draft dates way back to when I first lived and worked in and around the City of London, the capital’s financial Square Mile - or for our American gumshoe, London’s Wall Street. Now that I think of it, I doubt the idea for Shamus Dust could possibly have sparked outside that time and place. For three reasons.

In the first place, just then I’d been re-reading two very different crime writers that I thought were very impressive. Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon had both left indelible portraits of the cities where they set their stories. Neither was a native son, any more than I was native to London, yet both seemed to have a direct line to the essence of the places their characters moved through. In fact, they did such a job on the moods and atmospheres of Los Angeles and Paris, that they still colour our images of those cities today. When it comes down to researching, they show you that nothing - but nothing - beats breathing the air of the streets you plan to write about. It so happened that, at the time, I was breathing the air of London’s Square Mile.  

The second reason needs some recent history explaining. The City really is, more or less, the single square mile contained inside the arc of its ancient Roman walls. Its southern edge runs along the Thames shore. If you knew where to look, even in my days there, it bore some last scars of the wartime blitz. But reel back to the early Cold War, and a third of that square mile was still flattened rubble. It was archaeologists’ dreamland. For a few short years, digging in those blitz sites gave them unimagined access to a two-thousand years old Roman city right beneath their feet, and they wasted no time. Before reconstruction got seriously under way they had already 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’s 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. And then entirely forgotten about until a rainy day almost forty years later, when the drawings were noticed in the archaeological record. That chance rediscovery intrigued me when I heard about it. Not only that, I was right there where it had been found. And where better to be able to follow the story back? I had the marvelous Museum of London. The Guildhall Library close by (with Cecil Brown’s astonishing birds-eye drawing of bomb damage in the Square Mile, made from a wartime barrage balloon). And of course, I had the bookshops.


Which brings me to my third reason. The London Encyclopedia? It’s a compendium history of the capital, street by street and too heavy to lug around, but a bible that sent me walking everywhere. (And left me with a habit of walking any city I’m in). Muirhead’s Short Guide to London 1947? It was a sort of visitor’s Baedeker, post zone by post zone, invaluable for checking that streets had survived the bombing and buildings still stood. There were many, many others, but you get the picture. We’re talking pre-internet search. There was no substitute for trawling the bookstores, and the irreplaceable second-hand bazaars. Then, far more than now, London was a book hound’s Aladdin’s cave.

So how did that coliseum puzzle work out? Happily, in the end. After its rediscovery in 1988, the amphitheater was excavated for more than a decade, then opened to the public in a spectacular new gallery below ground (don’t miss it if you haven’t seen it). As for how evidence of a Roman arena - it’s the size of a football field - simply went unnoticed for so long, it still gets explained as a regrettable oversight, one of those things.

Shamus Dust tells the story rather differently. It goes back to the early Cold War years, when rebuilding the City was up for grabs, fortunes were staked on a construction boom and those blitz sites were some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. In this telling, the interests include high-end racketeers as well as corrupt City grandees, who think delaying construction would be very bad karma. Cue a monumental discovery on a construction site that nobody will get to hear of. Cue the apparent vice killing that gets Shamus Dust under way. And cue the hardboiled gumshoe who gets hired for the cover-up.

And that’s pretty much how Shamus Dust came to be. Thank you for asking! And one last thing. In 1949, just after the film’s huge critical and box-office success, Graham Greene wrote that The Third Man had been meant to entertain, make an audience laugh, and frighten a little. Of the grim Viennese penicillin racket it revolves around, he says it was the reality - but that the reality was only background to a fairytale. I think that’s spot on. Wonderful storyteller as Greene is, he’s no slouch at research. But he also understands that it’s never more than a point of departure. What you need then is to conjure some magic. I’m really glad you didn’t ask me where that comes from.

This interview was first published in In Reference to Murder by BV Lawson 29 October 2019
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