It wasn’t complicated. Not more than an early morning call from a City grandee, a nurse who came across her neighbor dead or dying before dawn on Christmas Day, and the dead neighbor’s latchkeys in my hand. That and the voice that always whispers in my ear, soft as telling a rosary, that for every reason I might think I have for mixing in a murder, there are ten better reasons to walk away. I crossed the angle of the court, fitted one of the keys in its lock and gave it a quarter turn. As for the voice that whispers, I hear it every time I step uninvited into an unlit room. The trick is not to let it start a conversation.”
April is not the cruelest month, not by a long shot. That would be October, when I drown my annual sorrows with the hope that next year, for sure, my beloved Metropolitans will not only make the playoffs, but go all the way. It is salved by the orgasmic visual and tactile experience that is Autumn in Northeastern USA, particularly after yet another too hot, overlong summer. But then, it is spoiled in turn as retailers insist on pushing their Christmas season earlier and earlier into the year. It used to be that they held off until Santa climbed off his Macy’s float and began renting lap space for cash. But no, they have pushed it back, past Halloween, past Columbus Day, to the beginning of October, and they may even have snuck past that to late September when I was otherwise engaged. A blot on humanity, this. How long can it be before the Christmas advertising begins right after Independence Day? Bad words are used in abundance, if not at particularly high volume, more muttering really. Greed, filthy lucre and all that. Not that I have anything against filthy lucre, per se, other than its insistent avoidance of my wallet and financial accounts. But I may have to rethink all this. It appears that Santa found his way to my chimney in OCTOBER! Not that I spotted him scrambling down. That would not have ended well for him, as, while we do have a chimney, there is no actual outlet inside the house. He might have missed subsequent deliveries, and the aroma might have become noticeable, but it was clear that he had me in mind this year, and early. It has been a while since I read a terrific Christmas book. And this one wasn’t even wrapped in a bow, with reflective or joyously seasonal paper.
Janet Roger – image from Dorset Book Detective
It was friend request. Not the first one I had received from an author. In fact, they are a bit of a problem in the dark business of book-reviewing, so much so that I had put a line in my profile intended to ward off author review requests. This one had the smarts to not bug me for an opinion. We exchanged a few friendly messages. You might like to check this website. Oh yeah, well You might want to check out This short story, and on it went, until a page from her book got around my virtual chain-link guard dogs, finding its way to my bloodshot eyes. It was the sort of book you catch a glimpse of, and your knees start to wobble. The edges of your mouth start to head toward your eyes. I knew there was no antidote to a virus like this. I had been successfully dosed. “Consider me seduced,” I wrote. “Can I get a review copy?” She didn’t play coy, but accommodated straight away. I like that in an author. Her people would be sending one my way faster than a copy editor strikes out a repetitive “the.” Wondering how easy this might turn out to be, I pushed my luck. Not everyone goes for extra stuff like this, but she seemed game, so I went ahead and asked. “How about an e-book, too?” And scored! No sooner did I download the book than I had to, just had to start reading. Even though my usual preference is for ink on dead trees, there was nothing for it. The heart wants what the heart wants, and boy, did my heart want.
The streetlamp hung off a half-timber gatehouse in the middle of a row of storefronts with offices over, there to light the gatehouse arch and a path running through it to a churchyard beyond. – image from A London Inheritance
Some books you rush through, even some good books. But this one, for me, was a slow read. Not in the sense of too dense to take in all at once. More in the way of wanting the pleasure to last. Wanting to squeeze the most out of the reading experience, and enjoying the sensations. I am sure most of us have had those experiences when there is sensate joy to be had and the best way is slow and steady, not wham-bam and I’m outta here. There is enough juice, enough fun in this one to let you linger a good long while, sustaining a peak of interest, a long plateau, with frissons of thrill along the way. Taking one’s time encourages close attention, which is significant in keeping up with all that is going on. Roger does not waste a lot of time on irrelevant side-trips. It helps, also, if you like noir, if Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and writers of the sort satisfy that particular need. It helps if you like to smile. We all got needs.
The church had a square over a doorway framed in checkerboard stonework. An iron-studded door stood half-open on the porch (entrance), a police officer hunched in its shadow. – image from A London Inheritance
Newman (no, Seinfeld fans. Picture that guy and lose the mood entirely.) is our mononymous PI, halfway, I guess, between the fully named Philip Marlowe and Hammett’s nameless Continental Op, a Yank, late of an insurance investigation gig, long-time resident and practitioner in The City of London. The specificity is intentional. Greater London, these days, is over 700 square miles. In 1947 it was half that, give or take. The City of London, the Wall-Street-ian financial capital, is one square mile, inside the original Roman walls. Chandler had LA, Hammett had San Francisco. Newman has the CoL. Definitely easier to jog in a day. Although under the circumstances it would be tougher than one might assume. 1947 London is enduring one of the coldest winters ever, and all that snow, a special and long-lasting delivery from a Siberian weather system, and right at the beginning of the Cold War. (Maybe a pre-emptive attack?) An intentional counterpoint to the heat of the City of Angels. It is a time of shortages, food, fuel, soap, and most things needed to live, power outages, rationing, the fruits of victory no doubt, without the consolation of heroism. Somehow the well-to-do manage to find supplies denied the little people. He gets a call at an odd hour, on Christmas morning. Seems a Councilor, for whom he has never before worked, needs him to check out a crime scene, deliver some keys to a detective there, then report back. When the detective is not to be found, Newman starts pulling on the thread that we will spend the next few hundred pages unravelling. (Like carefully opening a tightly wrapped Christmas gift?) Deader in the lobby (called a porch here) of an old church. (On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a dead fellow in a lobby) Candle still burning in the usual place inside. A nurse from nearby St Bart’s hospital had called it in.
The post-War CoL with a fluffy blanket – image from Roger’s site
Newman, tasked with delivering keys (not seasonally wrapped) to a detective at the site, but said detective having departed the scene, opts instead to use said keys, to the vic’s apartment. What he finds there gets the gears moving, and the game is afoot. No sooner have you dialed M for murder than the bodies start piling up like plowed snow, and Newman has to wonder if his own client has culpability. The questions pile up even faster. How long, for example, was the nurse inside the church before the pre-dawn shot to the head outside, and why didn’t she hear it?
Snowy London – image from the author’s site
Vice is front and center, as people with tastes that were considered a major no-no at the time are being blackmailed. But there is so much more going on. Of course, it may seem like very little to the locals, who have just endured the devastation of much of their city by our friends in Germany. Early Cold War London was rich with grift, corruption, ambition, and rubble. The City of London was considerably flattened. And, as has been made all too clear in the states, real estate development attracts the worst of the worst in human nature. Speaking of which, there is plenty of human nature on display here, indulging in all sorts of unpleasantness from garden-variety assault, to domestic violence, marital infidelity, a touch of human trafficking, police corruption, prostitution, blackmail, a dose of substance abuse, and enough backstabbing to justify proposing it as an Olympic sport.
Raymond Chandler – image from LA Taco
So what about our leading man? We can expect our PI to keep a supply of spirits close to hand, and Newman does not disappoint. We can expect that there will be times when he dives a bit too far into that bottle. Newman does not disappoint. We can expect that our PI is a tough guy, able to deliver as well as take a punch, or absorb blows from whatever sorts of objects may come into contact with his carcass. Newman does indeed uphold a knight errant code by approaching a deserving sort with an appropriate measure of violence, foolishly hoping to preclude further criminality. But he seems mostly on the receiving end, which is par for the course. We expect our knight-errant PI to have his heart in the right place, to do his best to look out for those who are least able to look out for themselves. Newman does not disappoint. We expect our PI to be dogged, continuing his quest even after it has become clear that such pursuit puts him in mortal peril. We expect that he can neither be bought off nor frightened away. Newman does not disappoint. We can expect that he is not really in it for the money, but that should some filthy lucre find its way to him, he will find a holy purpose for it. Newman does not disappoint. We expect our PI to be able to temper his moral urges with recognition of unfortunate realities. Newman does not disappoint.
Rubble around St Paul’s – image from Independent News
Rogers has a gift for crafting her supporting cast, the nurse who reported finding the body, the dodgy Councilor, his lush-ous daughter, his maybe dodgier lawyer, crooked cops, and on and on. Newman’s contacts are not exactly Burke’s Peerage (social-register to us Yanks) sorts, but are a delight, a barber, a sometime street-walker, a femme fatale of a doctor, whose side-job is pure fun, the mysterious mustachioed man who keeps turning up and then disappearing, abusive families, a cleric of questionable morality. This is joy, pure Christmas joy, but, like the best Christmas presents, this one can be enjoyed at any time of year. I do suggest, however, that you keep a digital or paper pad handy for tracking character names, particularly if you are reading the print version. There are more than a couple, and it would not do to be wondering who this is or trying to remember where you came across that one before. It is definitely worth the effort. Much easier, of course, in the e-book, where one can search at will. And there is no mistaking that the women in this tale are crucial to the events that transpire, with multiple facets, and sharp edges to match their softer curves.
A Central Line underground train entering Epping Station, during heavy snowfall at the height of 1947’s freeze – image from The Daily Mail
The best element of the book for me was the noir patois. There is a rhythm to noir writing, particular to Chandler’s, and Roger has captured it amazingly well. The reason I stretched out my reading of this book was that every time I sat down to take in a few more chapters, I could count on reading at least one passage, often more, that simply made me smile. I cannot recall smiling so much while reading a book. Passages like the one at the top of this review, and more:
Newman on his clientele: Sometimes they glided in, languid and exquisite, leading complicated lives they needed to make less expensive. Others came high-strung, hesitating before they stepped inside, looked downhill at a police station and uphill at a church and decided they were in their kind of neighborhood after all. But some were just plain scared, and looking up and down the hill was no help because police were a part of their problem and their problem was way beyond prayer. So they leaned on the buzzer, waited to be invited inside, and took the customer chair as if they’d found the last seat in a lifeboat.
Newman’s first impression of a key character: She was five feet and a half of deep-cherry redhead pressed against the door edge, fitted in a costume with a soft chalk stripe. Eyes wide-set, a crimp in her chin and a mouth that made the fall of dark-red hair look incidental. We lingered on her entrance just long enough to consider what else she might add to a winter morning. Then she touched at a silk flower pinned high on her shoulder, gave me the look that says Welcome is for doormats and murmured through close, even teeth, “Take your hat off, I’ll call my husband.” She turned on her heel and took the rustle with her.
On the resilience of conflict:
The figure in the armchair… peered in the doorway where I stood, then puckered and spat on the smoking coals. “War’s over, Yank.”
“It’s never over, Mr. Voigt. It only moves someplace else.”
This is why I loved this book. Of course, it is not the only reason. Another wonderful experience of reading this book was the opportunity to crank up the Google machine and look up all the places that were referenced. I spent an undergrad semester in London a lifetime ago, have been there two other times, and visit regularly via British TV programmes. I am quite fond of the place, so it was a labor of love to dive in whenever a street, shop, or location was named.
Roger’s love for noir shines through. She tips her cap to many who have gone before. There are a few references I caught. A character named Hamnet could only have been inspired by one writer. The Carne Organization, of The Long Goodbye, trots across a page or two. (And may offer a link to a planned sequel, The Gumshoe’s Freestyle) Casablanca get a mention, as do George Raft and Bulldog Drummond. Robert Mitchum is noted in a wardrobe reference, and I am sure there a gazillion more that true noir nerds will pick up on in volume.
A London bus that had to be dug out of a snowdrift in 1947 – image from The Daily Mail
Sit back and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy this ride, as you cheer Newman on. No reindeer required. Maybe you’ll take a month, like I did. Maybe you’ll rip through it like a Siberian wind through cheap fabric. Dress warm, or turn up the heat. Shamus Dust is like pixie dust for readers. Magic in abundance, and, while it addresses some of the darker sides of humanity in a trying time, it offers up a seemingly endless supply of smiles. If Santa offered such gifts up every year, I might not mind the holiday being pushed up quite so early.
Two women delivering milk in Northampton by sledge during the harsh winter of 1947 – image from The Daily Mail
To this European raised in the first Cold War, those Eisenhower Americans seemed effortlessly pragmatic, tough, resilient, smart and subversive (not to say cool!). When absolutely necessary they even seemed to tote a moral compass. Shamus Dust puts one of them center-stage, and bangs a drum for qualities I was drawn to then and still am: to a certain uprightness, an insolence that’s at home with doubts, and a dry acceptance that the best of film noir had it right; that in the end it’s not about how you can win, but only how you can lose more slowly. – the author – from her site
Review first posted – November 15, 2019
Publication date – October 28, 2019
As noted above, I received a copy (two really) of Shamus Dust from the author in return for a fair review. Of course, she did promise that those particular photos would never see the light of day, and I am holding her to that.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
You might also check out Roger’s blog on GR. There are lots of neat extra bits there.
—–Messy Business – Books, Writing, Stuff – Interview with Janet Roger, author of Shamus Dust – by Jason Beech – check out the wonderful bit on the derivation of the word Shamus
—–The Writing Desk – Special Guest Interview with Author Janet Roger – by Tony Riches
—–The Dorset Book Detective – Janet Roger Interview: “What really got under my skin was Marlowe’s voice guiding me around the next street corner”
—–In Reference to Murder – The Origin Story of Shamus Dust – by BV Lawson
Items of Interest
—–Stories of London – a nice summary of planning the city over an extended period.
—–In case you are interested in what private eyes drink, you can knock this one back in a single swallow – Gentlemen, Name Your Poison – Drinkers, Stinkers and Occasional Tipplers
—–markvoganweather.com – A LOOK BACK: Winter of 1946-47 – by Vogan
—– Audio excerpts – two chapters – from Roger’s site
—–Raymond Chandler – The Simple Art of Murder – definitely check out this essay by the master
—–Janet Roger – The Noir Zone – on what the author’s ability to write in such a Chandler-esque style was built on – on the site KillerNashville.com
—–For a bit of seasonal fluff in a Chandler-esque vein, you might enjoy my short story The Short Goodbye
—–December 6, 2019 – Roger added an entry on her site re the pub (The Tipperary) on the street floor of the building where Newman lives. Fun detail. Check it out.