Shamus Dust: Hard Winter, Cold War, Cool Murder is a well-told, intriguing, murder mystery set in the City of London in 1947. I particularly like the American private detective at the centre of the novel, who provided an outsider’s view of the British way of doing things. Newman breaks all the rules, he isn’t part of the ‘game’ and doesn’t understand good form, he asks questions that otherwise wouldn’t get asked. Of course, Newman is also bull headed and tenacious, even when they crack his head a few times he isn’t going to give up. Shamus Dust reveals a post war City of London where the veneer of respectability and slow recovery mask a profound hypocrisy and deep rooted corruption. The links between the seedy underbelly, the police and upper classes may be hidden but they are there.
Newman is an American living in London, he’s worked as an insurance investigator in the City in the past and he’s come to realise that the square mile, with its own police force, is virtually a law unto itself. Christmas Day 1947 he gets a phone call at 5.30am. City Councillor Drake says the police are investigating an ‘incident’ near one of his properties. They need access to a rented out flat belonging to Drake. He wants Newman to deliver the keys to detective Inspector McAlester at the crime scene, there’s a car waiting outside his Fleet Street flat to take him there immediately. Newman arrives in West Smithfield at St. Bartholomew’s Church, but the inspector has left the scene, apparently to investigate a car that might be connected to the incident. The officer on duty lets Newman take a look at the scene. In the porch of the church is a body under a bench, a man in his thirties, he’s been shot twice. Around a quarter to five that morning a nurse heading to the hospital for her shift stopped into the church to light a couple of candles and found the body on the way out (why didn’t she hear the shots?) The dead man was Drake’s tenant, he was also a neighbour of Nurse Greer – Raymond Jarrett.
Newman decides to take a look at Jarrett’s flat as he has the key. There are photographs of a certain kind everywhere, a camera set up too. Newman begins to get an idea about Jarrett who has been in trouble with the law before. Councillor Drake denies any knowledge of Jarrett’s activities so Newman starts digging. It turns out one of Jarrett’s friends went missing the might before he was killed. Newman is good at getting people to talk, a barber tells him he needs to talk to Miss Dillys, she was close to the missing boy. When Newman tracks the car involved in Jarrett’s murder it opens a new lead but everything is connected. Not everyone is happy with Newman poking around and it isn’t long before another body turns up. Meanwhile, Inspector McAlester doesn’t seem to be putting his all into the investigation.
The setting is good, the descriptions of the city, just out of the war, and the comparison between physical decay and the moral decay of the times (the hypocrisy of the characters) are particularly well done. Sleazy dives, wintry streets and posh parties are vividly brought to life.
If I’m honest, even though I like Newman, I think the novel is a little long and some descriptions and metaphors are too drawn out, they don’t quite work, but as an opener for a new series Shamus Dust shows real promise. I liked this line:
“The pelican was a regulation poison-well for the lower excitements. A place where bubbles will sink in the champagne and a deal from the top is novel, . . . a girl with a permanent and a hard, straight smile will empty your wallet faster than the Marshall Plan.”
This is by no means the new Marlowe in London but it is entertaining and engaging.
Paul Burke 3*
Shamus Dust: Hard Winter, Cold War, Cool Murder by Janet Roger
Matador 9781838590437 pbk Oct 2019