Updated: Mar 25
Not just a Review of the book but I was also delighted to be able to ask Janet Roger some questions about her writing, read on after my review for more. Thank you Janet Roger for answering my questions.
This is such a brilliantly crafted story, reminiscent of the old black and white thrillers with actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, and James Cagney. This book has also been compared with the Roman Polanski film Chinatown – high praise. You can almost feel the smog coming off the page, the prose so evocative and atmospheric, every character is believable. Janet Roger could certainly show a few writers how characters should be written. I have to admit I didn’t know what a Shamus was at first I had assumed it was the characters name, but that didn’t read right with the description, so I looked it up. A Shamus can be a police officer or a private investigator. This is a debut novel from Janet Roger, but you would never know that from the writing. Reminding you of the works of Raymond Chandler himself.
Christmas Day 1947, London still trying to recover from WW2. Dark and gloomy, with bombed out ruins, the streets can be treacherous. Where murder, corruption, and scandal is rife. The reader never gets to know the Christian name of Newman, we know that he came to London from America during the depression, he fought in the war and survived. He’s now a PI in the capital, he is the narrator of the story, everything we read and learn is through the eyes of Newman, with his sarcasm and dry wit, along with his smooth American lilt.
Despite the end of the war death is still on the streets. Newman is called in the early hours by Councillor Drake, a prominent politician, with an odd request, would he collect some keys to a flat he owns and rents out, and deliver them to Detective Inspector McAlester, but when Newman arrives where the Detective is meant to be he is not there, but what Newman does find is the tenant Raymond Jarrett, he is dead. Shot twice. Estelle Greer, a nurse as well as a barmaid, was on her way from church where she had been to light two candles, on leaving she had come across the body, after checking and realising nothing could be done, she had gone to the nearest telephone box and reported it. Newman visits Jarrett’s property and uncovers more than he expected. Estelle happens to live in the same building as the dead man, is this a coincidence? Newman asks if she knew Jarrett, she tells him she only knew him to speak to in passing. But what he doesn’t get is how she never heard the gunshots.
Councillor Drake had underestimated Newman, especially as he had returned the keys back to Drake, instead of taking them to the DI as requested. Newman didn’t understand why Drake hadn’t sent one of his own employees to take the keys to the DI. Did Drake know more about what his tenant was up to than he had let on? In his investigation’s Newman uncovers a homosexual vice ring, corrupt officials, blackmail, lies, half truths and greed. After a bombing blitz by the Luftwaffe on London during the war, a Roman city was discovered underneath London’s Square Mile. Where is Professor Garfield, archaeologist? What is his relationship to Jarrett? Newman visits Prof. Garfield’s home to find Henry Beaufort there as the professor’s PA! Henry was not happy, the Prof. hadnt been home that night. Later Commissioner Stearns has had a complaint about Newman, for talking to Henry Beaufort, whose father turns out to be a prominent, wealthy and well known architect. Edgar Levin Beaufort Partners are looking at developing the Square Mile of London, but could this be stopped because of the Roman city? Why was Henry Beaufort seen putting a bloodied coat of Prof. Garfield’s and a bag into the trash?
This is a proper noir book, dark and sophisticated, it’s not a book you rush through, it’s one where you devour and savour every sentence, following the cast of characters, wondering where they are going to fit within the grand scheme of things. If you blink you will miss something. It’s a story that needs your undisturbed attention to give it its full credit. There are several murders, with plenty of twists and turns, it’s up to Newman to unravel all the pieces of this puzzle. I like Newman, he is dogged in his pursuit to the truth. I had hoped that him and Dr Kathryn Swinford would get together but…..
If you enjoyed Raymond Chandler’s style of writing, and are looking for a new PI from this era, and city. London with its dark, murky, bomb ruined streets, then Newman is your man. This book has everything murder, mystery, blackmail, tension, great characters and plot. I highly recommend it.
I have given this book ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ stars. Read more below to find out more about the author Janet Roger.
I’m pleased to welcome historical fiction author Janet Roger to Jackie’s Reading Corner:
I'm pleased to welcome historical fiction author Janet Roger to Jackie’s Reading Corner:
What made you want to become a writer, is it something you have always wanted to do?
No, not at all. It took a time and place and a real-world story that intrigued me. And then an understanding of how to re-cast it as a crime fiction in a way that might interest me - and perhaps others too! Even then, the first draft was written and put away in a drawer for years (well, metaphorically - the file was parked on my laptop). Eventually it came to the top of the pile again, and I had time enough to give it some serious thought. So here we are. Perhaps I ought to say that, among other things, I started out as an Eng. Lit. graduate, which I think can go one of two ways: either you’ll be inspired to take to the keyboard as a way of life, or you’ll be too daunted to try writing at all - because you’re well aware of what went before you. I enrolled in the daunted class.
Why a historical setting? Why this specific time and London?
Simply because the events that intrigued and then prompted me had taken place in London - actually the City of London, in the Square Mile of the financial center. London’s Wall Street if you like. Shamus Dust is spun out of an incident that I fell across when I had a couple of spells living and working there. In fact the history of that single square mile is so crammed that it’s hard to avoid. There’s two thousand years of it, and you get an involuntary history lesson with every walk you take. What intrigued me, though, was some relatively recent history of the early Cold War, when hundreds of its acres - some of the most valuable real estate on the planet - were still flattened rubble from wartime bombing. The City at that time was waiting urgently to rebuild. Fortunes were staked on the coming construction boom. And then an odd, apparently innocent, but nonetheless colossal misstep got made. When I learned about it, I was curious about what exactly had gone on. Newman is the American shamus (private eye) who stumbles on the same misstep, and comes to be as curious about it as I was, decades later. Now, in fact, those real events that prompted the story took place just a few years later than they do in Shamus Dust. But I wanted the recent wartime to feel much closer, with its serious shortages still everywhere, and the threat of renewed conflict in the air. So Shamus Dust locates the story over Christmas and New Year of 47/48. The excruciating winter playing out in the background was real enough too, though in that case it belongs twelve months earlier still. The extreme, blizzard landscapes of the winter of ’46 are stunning when you see 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. I think that’s a really striking comparison. Because, on reflection, there are parallels between the two, and some time displacement is one of them. To set Chinatown in 1938, Robert Towne’s screenplay moves the California Water Wars forward more than twenty years. Whereas Shamus Dust moves its own dark story of riches, corruption and murder a mere five or so years back.
How important do you think the characters are in a book?
Well, let me work around to that. The story that interested me had felt like a mystery in its own right. The question then, as I began by saying, was how to tell it. Now, as it happens, in those Cold War years when the story is set, there was a sea-change up and running in hardboiled mystery writing, thanks to the Philip Marlowe novels of one Raymond Chandler. I’d loved them since I first came across them as a teenager, and especially - to go back for a moment to Robert Towne - what he calls Chandler’s lazy, lyrical narrative style. It occurred to me then, that of course, it’s the one instantly recognizable prose fiction style of the period the story is set in. So now I can answer to your question. Because, after all, we’re talking 1940s detective fiction here, and from The Big Sleep onwards - it premiered in 1939 - the Marlowe novels progressively background the plot. By the time The Little Sister arrives in 1949, Chandler himself is acknowledging that his latest amounts to not much more than a succession of scenes, characters and dialog (but what scenes!). So yes, giving Shamus Dust that Chandleresque feel of the period, does mean that characterization becomes key to the storytelling. So far, so good. Though by now - it can be a shock to realize - we’re all of eighty years on from The Big Sleep. Which is distance enough to notice that the hardboiled mysteries 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. Obviously, if you’re interested in your characters and you do think they’re important, you’re going to have to extend them beyond the range of ‘40s detective fiction. Hence, especially, the writing of the women in Shamus Dust. It astonishes me how often women in films noirs are so much better developed and nuanced than women in the hardboiled writing of exactly the same years. My instinct is that it’s because, in the end, there’s no escaping putting the roles in the hands of a woman. Anyway, I should add that, in addition to majoring on its characters, Shamus Dust is also intricately plotted. Not very Chandleresque of me.
Do you hear the characters voices in your head before you write them, or do the characters just form as you write?
That’s an interesting one. Yes to both questions! I can’t say I’d really thought about this, but I do have a voice in mind for each character. On the other hand, each character develops with the story because I tend to write scene by scene, without too much of an overall plan in mind. It’s not that I don’t plot in advance, just that I’m very good at ignoring the results. The hardest part, I think, is more often deciding the scene. I mean the when and the how of it, who’s going to be involved and where the story is headed. I really have no time at all for scenes (my own or anyone else’s) that simply park the narrative, characters and setting to no purpose. Every scene - every scene - ought to move the reader forward. A recent review really delighted me when it said, “Don't make the mistake of skimming anything, there's a lot on every page and all of it is important. Don't blink or you might miss something …” Then, once I’m decided about a scene’s function, the first draft often writes fairly straightforwardly. There are exceptions of course, and my feeling when that happens is that I’ve probably got it wrong, had better go back to square one and rethink the whole thing. We’ll draw a veil over the endless editing.
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
How long have I got? I’m a bookhound, I love cities and can’t walk past a museum or art gallery; go to the movies, to chamber concerts and the opera wherever anything interesting is showing, and avoid all television like the plague. Because the thing is, most of life is not about writing. I’m always quite happy to write nothing for months on end and then do nothing but, whenever the spirit takes me. Added to which, I have a mortal terror of routine. It drives me completely nuts. So, since I’m an unmitigated itinerant of long standing, writing gets done on the hoof like everything else, wherever I happen to be. And that goes 365 days of the year. Unless I’m in an hotel room, a sleeping car on a train or a cabin on a ferry or a freighter, I can get very quickly itchy about not moving on. Think of it as a notifiable disease. But then, as Newman (the shamus in Shamus Dust) puts it, …you can’t always have your moments of clarity over sherry in the library.
About the Author
Janet is an historical fiction author, writing literary crime. She’s published by Troubador Publishing in the UK and represented by JKS Communications Literary Publicity in the USA. She trained in archaeology, history and Eng. Lit. and has a special interest in the early Cold War. Her debut novel, Shamus Dust: Hard Winter, Cold War, Cool Murder is due 28 October and is currently attracting widespread media interest.
This review and interview were first published by Jacqueline Sharp in Jackie's Reading Corner 26 October 2019 https://jackiesreading4leisure.home.blog/2019/10/26/shamus-dust-hard-winter-cold-war-cool-murder-by-janet-roger/