DORSET BOOK DETECTIVE. Janet Roger Interview: “What really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice..."
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
As a fan myself, it’s great to hear from someone whose work was heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler. Therefore it is my great privilege to introduce Janet Roger, who spoke to me about her work and how the great creator of Philip Marlowe came to inspire it.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime and mystery fiction?
As a teenager I’d read all of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories – not so long after they were written as I’d like to think – and they knocked my socks off. He wrote about Los Angeles and its neon-lit boulevards, its sour, gritty downtown and gun toting cops (a novelty to this young European) and made them exotic. But what really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner, and beyond it into a stale apartment block or a down and low bar. He invited me to look over his shoulder, let me into his highs and lows, talked me through them and then put me in the seat beside him to drive me home. It was heady stuff, up to the point where the story began to seem incidental to the city and its moods, its characters and their speech patterns. What really mattered was the time, the place and the people you might run into. I’d discovered a new kind of mystery writing and got hooked.
How did you get into writing crime fiction?
By the back door. I’d been fascinated by a discovery made in the City of London in the early Cold War, a true detective story in its own right, and wondered how to tell it. Now the fact is, in those years a radically new wave of crime fiction was hitting its stride. Meanwhile, Hollywood had embarked on a slew of dark, ground-breaking movies: think Double Indemnity, The Third Man, Gun Crazy or Out of the Past. In other words the story I was interested in had unfolded right at the heart of classic noir. So the way to tell it, and at the same time set it in period, seemed obvious. How to bring that off? How do you stay convincingly close to the conventions of a classic genre and still bring the modern reader along for the ride? Well, that gets into larger questions of how you choose to write your historical fiction. But it was absorbing, and great of fun to do.
What features do you believe are vital to creating good crime fiction?
Read Shamus Dust and you’ll know I’m absolutely sold on Chandler’s landmark essay on crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder. He wrote it for Atlantic Monthly in 1944, and I’m not the only one who thinks that – along with his collected letters – it’s the very best of his writing. Yes, you can include the Philip Marlowe novels in that! I won’t paraphrase the original. It argues his case to perfection and the essay is still in print, as a preface to his short stories. Spoiler warning: he’s not at all complimentary about the classic, murder-over-high-tea puzzler!
Please tell me about the books you read. How do they influence your work?
First thoughts are two very slim books that I’d have given my writing arm for. First is Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Forget the movie, it’s a travesty. The original story is lyric, sparkling, spare and unsentimental about its heroine, who goes her own way first and last, entirely her own woman. Such a shame that Hollywood didn’t serve Capote anywhere near as well as his childhood friend, Harper Lee, when To Kill a Mockingbird reached the screen only a year later.
My second even has a connection of sorts to Shamus Dust, where there’s actually a passing nod to Homer. (How does an ancient Greek epic poet possibly fit in a hardboiled detective story? Newman, the private-eye narrator, asks the same question!). Christopher Logue’s War Music is a narrative poem, not a translation but a reworking of some of the first books of Homer’s Iliad. The writing is fast paced, knife-edge precision, thrilling in its accounts of hacking, screeching hand-to-hand combat. Exquisite in its fixing of the heroes of the Trojan War, the landscapes they maul over and the skies they die beneath. You’ll read either one of these two in an afternoon, then want to reread it next afternoon.
Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?
Absolutely no rituals! I have a mortal terror of routine in all things. It drives me completely nuts. Writing, like everything else, gets done wherever I happen to be, in the expectation I’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. There, got that off my chest! But you’ll gather I rely more on inspiration than method. Where does the inspiration come from? Probably from a lifetime of needing to get out of a soup I just landed in!
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Collaborating isn’t really for me (see above!) but it’s an interesting question. It occurs to me that there are artists I’d love to talk to about their way of seeing things, for example the early-twentieth century paintings of Edouard Vuillard. He’s hard to categorize, and if you’re not familiar do look him up. His oblique, fragmented take on his surroundings – often interiors – invites you to loiter over what’s going on there. Another painter would be Camille Corot (earlier than Vuillard) who has a magical way of overlaying real landscapes with the lyric haze of visual memory. The common thread is how to represent seeing and remembering. Better stop there before this becomes a visit to an art gallery.
Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I’m well on into a sequel to Shamus Dust called The Gumshoe’s Freestyle, set six months later in the City (of course), in the summer of ’48. Those immediate postwar years made interesting times. Freestyle ties up some loose ends, returns to some characters from the first story and develops with them. Actually, there’s a connection planted toward the close of Shamus Dust, though you do seriously have to know your Chandler to spot it. I liked the idea of some oblique, passing link between two cases that Newman and Marlowe will never know they once shared an interest in. That said, Freestyle stands on its own and takes our private eye to an entirely new case. It’s been interesting to decide which characters to go back to, how fleeting or important they need to be, and of course, how to introduce them to a reader who doesn’t already know them from the earlier story.
Are there any new books or writers are you looking forward to in the future?
Well, one that’s new to me is Jonathan Letham’s Motherless Brooklyn. It’s now arrived on the big screen thanks to the persistence of Edward Norton, who wrote the screenplay, directs and performs. The book was first published twenty years ago, so it’s time I caught up with another author who takes the private-eye genre and defies its expectations. The film, by the way, moves the setting back to the late 1950s. There’s something magnetic about the period, isn’t there?
It’s been great to hear from Janet; thank to her for taking the time to answer my questions!
This interview was first published 21 September 2019 at https://dorsetbookdetective.wordpress.com/2019/09/21/janet-roger-interview