First-time author Janet Roger captures the spirit of 1940s London in her new mystery novel set in the war-ravaged city that could give Raymond Chandler a run for his money.
Philip Marlowe from Chandler’s The Big Sleep is to Los Angeles what Newman the private investigator from Roger’s Shamus Dust is to London. Roger captures the spirit of post-war London in pretty much the same way Chandler captured the atmosphere of 1930s Los Angeles. Both writers used actual place names and described those locations vividly. Reading Shamus Dust, one can envision the cold and grey winter of 1947-48 in the City of London, which was recovering from being bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. Like Chandler’s books that feature Marlowe, Shamus Dust can be considered period noir.
The protagonist Newman is an American-born private investigator (or “shamus“) operating as a fraud specialist in London. He had left the United States during the Great Depression and found employment across the pond. When the war broke out, he was assigned to audit the deals for defence equipment signed between the British and American governments. At the beginning of the story, he is contracted by wealthy landowner and City of London councillor Drake to look into the death of one of the councillor’s tenants. As Newman begins to dig deeper, the bodies start piling up quickly and he discovers that a dodgy land deal involving Drake’s crooked lawyer is what started the ball rolling. Newman also finds that a corrupt policeman and a ruthless racketeer are major players in the case, and that a black market for erotic photographs of young males is thriving, thanks to the pair.
Roger derived the title of her debut novel from a phrase in the Yiddish language rather than the normal slang that denotes most American police officers’ Irish origin. This seems to give the impression that she may have some Jewish blood in her. Initially, it is quite easy to mistake the British-born Roger as as Irish.
Shamus Dust captures the way Londoners got by during the difficult post-war days when much of the City lay in ruins after the Germans laid waste to it. Notably, it highlights the atmosphere in the Square Mile – as the City was colloquially known – where murder was scarce and even a single dead body would give the local police the jitters. The City of London was essentially Britain’s smallest unitary authority and was centred around the country’s main financial hub. This area was the original site of the Roman garrison known as Londinum. It was governed by a Corporation, of which Councillor Drake was a prominent member. On top of that, it had its own police force that was known for tackling white-collar crime, hence the nickname “the City’s finest”. Along with the small number of permanent residents within the confines of the City, this made for a tight community. It is also the same community that serves as a key plot element.
In such a tiny community based in an area of just over a square mile, it is inevitable that everyone is connected to each other. Indeed, it is such connections between people that make Newman’s job a rather sensitive one. The more he uncovers, the more danger he places the main characters – himself included – into. As always, the most ruthless ones are often those with the most to hide. In this respect, the suspense in Shamus Dust is palpable.
A good mystery novel should have strong character dynamics and Roger has certainly managed to deliver on that note. Another thing is a strong element of realism, and Shamus Dust came up strongly with its brutal portrayal of London in the aftermath of the Second World War, not to mention the depiction of homosexuals forced to live secret lives in a conservative society under the threat of blackmail.
It remains to be seen whether Newman will return for more adventures in the same way Philip Marlowe did. If he does, it would mean Janet Roger has kickstarted a new series in a niche market for period noir. Despite little being known about her, there is no doubt she appears to be good in her sort of thing. If Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were still alive today, they certainly would be proud of her for taking up where they left off. The only difference is that both men were writing about an era they were part of, while Roger is writing about a forgotten era.