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Blitz damage in the heart of the City of London 1940s

London's Postwar Blues

Shops and offices in the bombed out City of London postwar were few and far between

LONDON 1947 Winter of Discontent

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. 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. "An office anyplace in the City was overpriced and hard to find. Harder still when the address had a ring to it and liked to guarantee a better class of customer. Maybe it did at that, if what you had for sale was fancy accounting or imported fashions or a quarter-mile of chalk stream running off the downs. But nobody had walked in my office yet in a better class of trouble, and all the Thornburgh was bringing me were better fed accents living past their means, wearing the high-hat manner in half sizes.” SHAMUS DUST

Postwar the teeming City of London was the best-policed square mile on the planet

THE CITY Teeming Square Mile

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 ... "It might have been daylight. There was no telling. In the bright room time moves undivided and there’s no clock on the wall. A bug-eyed desk sergeant had taken my wallet and necktie and belt with the brass buckle, my wristwatch, shoelaces and pocket change. Then made out a receipt for it all as if it bought me a ticket to get in. It’s the one contract police ever make with you. For the rest, it’s understood that they own your present and intend to lean on your past, and your future is theirs to hand back when and if they decide. Aside from that, you’re at liberty: at liberty to reflect on what they might have on you, and the man-hours they can put into making something of it; at liberty to become reacquainted with your own sweat and theirs while they make up their minds." SHAMUS DUST

Postwar rationing, postwar blues in the City of London 1947

TOUGH TIMES Getting Tougher

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. Postwar blues set in. 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.  "Wilhardt became Willard, a club owner passing for legitimate if you didn’t have to be rigid about it, with a grade of associates and interests that made him hoodlum aristocracy even before war broke out. The lung that caused him to miss the shooting war held up well enough, let him move in on the City’s black markets and cut out a share all his own. By 1942 he had an interest in every freight shipment north of the river and owned a string of burlesque and clip joints magnetic to the US Army dollar." SHAMUS DUST

Shamus Dust tells the story of a cover-up in the teeming square mile of London.


I always did find that financial square mile, the City of London, exhilarating, but in 1988 something rather special happened there. Stop for a second and imagine you've got an absolute fortune riding on commercial real estate development, somewhere near to Wall Street. The ground is cleared, foundations are being dug out, and one day you get a call. It says everything is on hold, because excavations on the site have uncovered the first Viking settlement on Manhattan island. No kidding, something like that happens fairly regularly in the City, notably since reconstruction began after the blitz of world war two. Today it can happen whenever a new subway is cut, or the latest, tallest skyscraper needs deeper foundations. In the Square Mile, the layers go right down to the original Roman settlement of London, and in 1988, a routine excavation for Guildhall's new art gallery hit the jackpot. What the archaeologists found were signs of an amphitheater - think of the Colosseum in Rome itself - in the shape of an oval the size of a football field! Amazing. And it took another twenty years to preserve the remains in a spectacular gallery of their own. But it turns out those remains had first been recorded almost forty years before, when postwar reconstruction was first getting underway. The significance of what the archaeologists found, it was said, just hadn't been spotted at the time. It set me thinking about the immense sums that were at risk - and the huge temptation to a cover-up - if the significance of the find had been appreciated. In recent years in Athens, for example, some ancient Greek remains were simply trucked out of a construction site (it's assumed) and dumped overnight in a dry riverbed. Where the original site might have been, no-one could tell. SHAMUS DUST tells the story of another kind of cover-up at the outset of the Cold War where in the most valuable, teeming square mile on the planet, the need is more urgent, the stakes are deadly, and the solution is nastier by far.​ "The City of London was different. A single square mile, financial heart of the metropolis, where banks and insurance offices, trading houses and exchange floors mined the motherlode and squeezed out every other way of living. It had a resident population that could fit in the back of a limousine, and when its offices emptied and headed home at nights, they left behind a ghost town. Meaning that the possibilities for lawbreaking were rarefied, best appreciated by men who wore club ties and returned home late to wives with headaches and hearts of diamond. Meaning also that its police were left to concentrate on those things closest to the City’s heart. It had twelve hundred officers paid to keep the traffic moving, eject undesirables not the City’s own, and otherwise maintain an atmosphere congenial to the making of loud money. Ordinarily the setup worked like a Swiss timepiece. In the City a killing was strictly a figure of speech. Most days of the year you stood a better chance of getting shot at in a lighthouse." SHAMUS DUST

bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London.

"Imagine …"Chinatown" played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London." So said a reviewer of SHAMUS DUST. It’s a startling invitation, and it gave me food for thought. The comparison, after all, is with a film nearly fifty years old, and one of my personal favorites; a dark (even though sun-bleached) re-telling of the California Water Wars, from a terrific (and Academy-winning) screenplay by Robert Towne. Set as it is in late-1930s Los Angeles, what could be further from SHAMUS DUST, set in war-scarred London at Christmastime a decade later, in the worst winter in memory? And yet they do have things in common, both in the anatomy of the two stories and in the way they’re told. As big as the background story of "Chinatown" is - the City of Los Angeles’ raw grab for the water rights of the entire Owens Valley - Robert Towne unfolds it through writing an intimate noir mystery. And while there’s no narrator’s voice over, we follow every twist through the eyes of Jake Gittes, the private detective who’s there in every scene. Jake may be a sideshow, the hired gumshoe pulled obliquely into events way beyond his pay grade, but his curiosity and persistence are what lead us through the maze. Each of those elements - the noir mood, the private-eye as narrator, the big story told on an intimate scale - is also there in SHAMUS DUST. As for the two stories themselves, they’re as different as their settings. SHAMUS DUST plays out in the square mile of high finance called The City - London’s Wall Street - in the early years of Cold War. Hundreds of its acres, some of the most valuable on the planet, are still rubble after wartime bombing. City fortunes are being staked on their reconstruction. But if that all sounds a long way from California, the two stories have other things in common too. For one thing, both are shifted in time: those Water Wars were fought more than thirty years before "Chinatown" is set, just as the events that spark SHAMUS DUST in fact happened some years later. For another, they’re each driven by greed and the sense of impunity of the very powerful. Both are stories of deviant wealth and civic corruption at the highest level. Both involve criminal sexuality. Both descend into routine murder for the cover-up. Let’s not forget either that there’s a disconcerting, perplexing woman at the heart of both stories. Or that the private detective never quite gets ahead of her, first to last. Even their climates - sun-glare in Los Angeles, snow-blur in London - color both the film and the book. So my SHAMUS DUST reviewer has a point about the parallels. I’m also happy to report that he ends: "Brilliant writing, compassion and a biting sense of humour." Which sounds like "Chinatown" too, doesn’t it? It’s Chinatown in the bombed-out City of London in 1947, with a freeze falling on snow covered ruins. And among the ruins a secret City planners and developers want to keep hidden at all costs – including murder. It’s a well plotted web of corruption and intrigue. An atmospheric tale told in prose that crackles under foot as you follow in the footsteps of Newman, the lone PI, hell bent on solving the case. And, you’ll save money. You won’t have to invest in a bookmark—it just isn’t possible to put this novel down until you finish." LES EDGERTON, Author & Screenwriter.

CITY BOMB SITES Private Fortunes

"Roger can write like a dirty, noir dream that thrashes in the small hours. Her London in the bleak, still-bombed-out winter of 1947 lacks any of the sunlight of Chandler's California, but she takes her cue from him, although by way of Phillip Kerr's Bernie Gunther and, perhaps more, Craig Russell's Lennox - a Canadian in postwar Glasgow. It's easy to see both of them in her work. But Roger gives her own hard-boiled masterclass, with plenty of the unexpected and enough action and drama to keep the blood pumping. A superb debut." 

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