A review by Joey Media
Somewhere between the fast-paced action of a 1940s noir and detailed, methodical read-by-the-fire novel, Shamus Dust is a well-researched, engaging exploration of London post–World War II (when “eggs were powder, bread was on ration, and bacon wasn’t even a rumor”), where the bombings and disruptions of the war have opened the gates to all manner of subterfuge and cash-grabs.
According to her biography, Janet Roger cut her thriller and mystery teeth on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and it definitely shows. But, as I said, this is more than just a trope-filled whodunit, although fans of the genre—myself included—will not be disappointed. If you are familiar with Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller, it has the very same layer of intelligence.
As a writer of historical novels who loves to do research and create highly detailed descriptions of the worlds in which they happen, as well as a playwright who has penned two audience-chooses-the-endings murder mystery musicals and an Escape Room based on my 1940s Manhattan gumshoe Dirk Manzman, I am well acquainted with the immense amount of work that goes into combining the two as Roger has accomplished.
The historical research really is exquisite, from the Roman presence in Britain at the turn from BC to AD and onward for hundreds of years to the German V-2 rocket launches. There are references to an RKO newsreel and film of the time. It helps to know your history when Newman references “Dickie Mountbatten” (the popularity of The Crown, and Charles Dance’s portrayal, should help) and another character says, “[T]hey charged at Balaclava and were chums with General Gordon in China” (George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, anyone?). There’s even a reference to a 1927 chess match. See if you can find it.
I really had a chuckle when I read about a US Army black market gasoline operation in France involving an NCO. I edited the memoir of an American veteran, also an NCO, who was involved in a version of this elsewhere in belle France.
The descriptions of London in 1947 are so detailed they are almost holographic. I was right there every step of the way with the hero of the tale, Inspector Newman—first name unknown—as he tries to solve a growing list of murders around the Christmas holiday. Whether it’s a sleazy tavern or a mansion, the banks of the Thames or a snowy street, the details are crisp and clear. And within these perfectly rendered sets, Newman engages with all the wonderful stock characters a lover of 1940s noir expects to be populating them—the ultra rich, the educated, the distrustful police, the opportunistic journalists, the showgirls and soldiers, the medical professionals and outright vagabonds. You can smell the cigarette smoke and the whiskey (cheap and expensive) as Newman unravels the mystery, paying a heavy physical price.
That is not a spoiler. We want him to take his lumps. That’s how the genre works.
There are at times intense conversations amidst the gender politics of today about who “has permission/agency” to write certain characters. I think it’s a great twist and quite successful here that a female is writing a stereotypical male private detective. Tom Kies, who I’m privileged to call a colleague, writes a female journalist protagonist to great effect in his Random Road series, which I highly recommend.
Also in line with the tropes the genre demands, we meet Newman being woken up by the ringing of the phone on Christmas day. He tells us a bit about his background. It’s familiar, yet unique. An American living in London, it is clear Newman has been around the block and is decent at his job.
For the week or so that the story takes place, Newman keeps busy chasing the breadcrumbs in a form of private dick snowball sampling—interviews unlock clues that lead to other interviews, until he’s working day and night.
The body count’s considerable. The killer is always one step ahead, knocking off suspects and the innocent in equal measure. And, like I said, as Newman gets closer to the truth, he takes his bumps and bruises.
Roger combines—without giving the core of things away—decadent secrets (anticipating the arrest of Alan Turing by five years), real estate dealings, and good old-fashioned greed in a potent concoction for criminality in the world of archaeology and custodianship of the past. If you know Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders, you’ll know the highly contentious dualities to which I allude.
Shamus Dust really has it all—witty dialogue, great character names (how about Dillys Valentine?), and Roger is well schooled in the mechanisms for keeping tension, unveiling facts at a proper pace, paying her IOUs, and using techniques like “the Pope in the pool” to deliver needed exposition without bogging down the story.
She also has a knack for lacing the narrative with little moments of business that bring it further to life: “The hatcheck blonde was fixing her stocking run with nail varnish.” When my college writing professor drilled into us to “slow the language down” this is what he meant. Cinematic and Technicolor writing. Perfect for the long-form cable series audience.
And Newman is quite the anomaly. He has all of the masochism we would expect, getting in his own way and taking the hits to solve the case, but Roger also makes him well read and cultured. When she writes “like Proust meeting his grandmother,” that’s not a reference everyone in the typical audience is going to get. But Newman has all the layers, describing Norway as a “military equivalent of Laurel and Hardy.”
It could be that we get more of Newman’s story in the future, as, near the conclusion, he receives an offer from a Beverly Hills, California investigative agency exploring the possibility of his working for them in London.
I hope that is the case.
Pun of course intended.
TITLE: Shamus Dust: Hard Winter, Cold War, Cool Murder
AUTHOR: Janet RogeR
PUBLISHER: Leicestershire, UK: Matador, an imprint of Troubador Publishing