by Janet Roger
Genres: Historical, Mystery
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Two candles flaring at a Christmas crib. A nurse who steps inside a church to light them. A gunshot emptied in a man’s head in the creaking stillness before dawn, that the nurse says she didn’t hear.
It’s 1947 in the snowbound, war-scarred City of London, where Pandora’s Box just got opened in the ruins, City Police has a vice killing on its hands, and a spooked councilor hires a shamus to help spare his blushes. Like the Buddha says, everything is connected. So it all can be explained. But that’s a little cryptic when you happen to be the shamus, and you’re standing over a corpse.
I am always looking for something a little different when I make my selections for the HoHoHo Readathon. Some years I slip in a horror but this year, Shamus Dust by Janet Roger crossed my desk. A murder-mystery that begins in the wee hours of Christmas morning.
shamus noun. Slang. – a detective.
It’s Christmas Morning 1947, post war in the city of London when American PI, Newman receives a phone call from Councillor Drake, asking him to take keys to one of his properties to DI McAlestor and to discreetly discover the nature of the police investigation.
Newman arrives at a murder scene located on the stoop of a church adjacent to the Councillor’s apartment buildings. He soon discovers the victim, Raymond Jarrett is a tenant. One who was blackmailing the privileged. He apparently liked to spend time photographing young men.
The body was discovered by Nurse Greer. Her account doesn’t quite add up and soon Newman finds himself follow clues… but the more he investigates the more bodies keep turning up. He isn’t looking so good himself as someone tries to warn him off the case.
Do you read in color? I read the entire book in black and white. What a gem. If you like hardboiled detective movies, Classic Noir with corruptions, twists, dirty cops, and clever detectives you’ll want to grab Shamus Dust.
From the descriptions of worn-torn London to the trail of clues, characters and twists I found it all rather addictive. It’s a meaty story and meant to be read slowly. I only managed a few chapters an evening. Could it have been less descriptive? Perhaps, but I appreciated being pulled completely back in time. It was like stepping into an old black and white film.
I knocked a half-star off because a few terms jumped out at me that didn’t feel authentic to the period and they Americanized a few words. I prefer terms, spelling and language to be appropriate to the period/place in which the book is set.
Secondary characters from suspects to the police medical examiner added to the tale. For a debut novel the murder(s) and journey to the conclusion were well crafted, believable and well played. The author kept me guessing and had me smiling as all was revealed.
Shamus Dust delivered a rich murder mystery that was engaging, clever and well-honed. It’s a gem just waiting to be discovered.
Read Chapter One
For as long as I remembered, I’d been sleeping like the dead. Could slip at any hour, in any place, deep into that cool night where the heartbeat crawls and dreams are stilled like small animals in winter. Not on account of some inner serenity or the easy conscience of an unspotted soul. It was a leftover, a habit arrived in a war, when all that counts is to grab at sleep and hold onto it whenever and wherever it offers. It becomes a thing accustomed. So routine you take it as given, right up until the hour it goes missing. Lately, I’d lost the gift. As simple as that. Had reacquainted with nights when sleep stands in shrouds and shifts its weight in corner shadows, unreachable. You hear the rustle of its skirts, wait long hours on the small, brittle rumors of first light, and know that when finally they arrive they will be the sounds that fluting angels make. It was five-thirty, the ragged end of a white night, desolate as a platform before dawn when the milk train clatters through and a guard tolls the names of places you never were or ever hope to be. I was waiting on the fluting angels when the telephone rang.
First light was hours away. It had been snowing for twenty. The telephone sat on a bureau between two sash windows looking down on the street. I slacked my shirt collar and shoelaces, let the ringing clear my head, rolled off the sofa and picked up on a cool, well-fed, commercial voice I didn’t recognize. “We have not met, Mr. Newman. I am Councilor Drake.” The delivery out of the box where they keep the City’s anointed, but the name meant nothing to me. The commercial tone went on.
“There has been an incident. A short while ago I received a telephone call from City Police requiring access to a property that belongs to me. My driver has the keys. You will convey them to the detective inspector who telephoned and determine what this incident amounts to. Whereafter you will report your findings to me. You are acquainted, I believe, with City Police.”
The councilor believed right. We were acquainted. I waited for whatever else he wanted to tell me about my immediate future, and when he didn’t, said, “You’re mistaken about what I do, Mr. Drake. And you didn’t mention where you got my name.” Vehicle lights lit stripes along the wall and moved them clockwise round the room.
The councilor didn’t miss a beat. “From your former employer, Mr. Lynagh. Why should I be mistaken?” Cold distilled off the window in waves. I watched a snow flurry beat against the glass. My last employer had been head of the City’s insurance investigations; a shrewd, straight-talking Australian who moved in circles where you can say whereafter even in front of the servants. Also given to homilies. Look, Newman, as far as the locals are concerned, we’re both colonials. The difference is my lot play cricket with them and all is forgiven. Your lot are the tired and huddled masses that rhyme tomato with Plato, and every living Limey thinks baseball is a game for girls. Can’t argue about the baseball, though. The councilor filled the silence on the line, waiting his answer. “Mr. Lynagh commends your resourcefulness and discretion. Therefore, whatever prior engagements you may have, be good enough to do as I ask.”
But it was early Christmas morning. I had no engagements. No argument with discreet and resourceful either, and still it didn’t make sense. This was London. There were major league inquiry agencies on call around the clock, ready to jump. Instead, the councilor had taken a recommendation, called a number in the book, and was making it clear he was not somebody to disappoint. I put the mouthpiece under my chin and a double-hitch knot in my necktie. “Councilor, I’m one man. What I do mostly concerns people who go missing with other people’s money. Hard to believe, I know, but in this mile-wide hub of empire and enterprise there are operators who rub up against other operators with fewer scruples than they own themselves. When that happens and they get taken to the cleaners, it’s not a thing they advertise or mention to police. Not even to a high-class agency, on account of the embarrassment. So far, I don’t see what your embarrassment is. Without it the job wouldn’t be in my line.”
Drake breathed a sigh in my ear. “You can have no idea yet, Mr. Newman, in what line this employment belongs. If, on the other hand, you are intending merely to bargain, there is not time. I propose that you double your customary fee and do not keep the detective inspector waiting. My driver should already be at your door.”
The line sputtered and died. I put the telephone back in its cradle and cleared my breath off the window glass. Twenty feet below, Fleet Street was quiet as a prayer, newsrooms dark and presses shut down for the holiday. Parked as close to the curb as the snowfall allowed, a Daimler limousine waited with its sidelights burning, fanning exhaust across the sidewalk. I was curious. Curious that a City councilor with a problem would send his car to collect me first, and then telephone me second. Curious that he would double my rate and not ask what my rate was, or even how I voted. If all you want is a delivery made and some questions asked, it’s a lot of trouble to go to. I got my jacket and coat off the floor and went down to the waiting car. Not out of curiosity. Not even for the siren call of an open checkbook. In the end, just to get some air on a night turned airless. That and because I thought I could be back before daylight, weary enough for sleep.
Ten minutes later the councilor’s driver eased under a streetlight on West Smithfield on the hospital side of the square, climbed out and had the rear door open while the car still settled at the curb. He pushed an envelope at me, bleak-eyed in the falling snow, then got back in behind the wheel without a word and glided east along the deserted meat market.
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. I ripped open the envelope while my fingers still worked, put two keys on a tag in my pocket and walked under the arch. The freeze was squeezing the ground so hard, the gravestones were starting to levitate.
The church had a square tower over a doorway framed in checkerboard stonework. An iron-studded door stood half open on a porch, a police officer hunched in its shadow. The pallid giant beat one glove against another in a slow handclap, then raised a salute as I walked up the churchyard path. I said I had a delivery to make to his detective inspector and asked was he around. The officer looked out at the night over the top of my head. “Detective Inspector McAlester, sir. He left. A motor vehicle connected with the incident is reported nearby.”
It was the third time I’d heard the word inside half an hour. “Incident?”
The officer backed up inside the darkened porch, snapped on a flashlight that sent wild shadows shuttering across his shoes, then settled it on a bench that ran around the wall. The beam moved over a torso lying twisted under the bench, played along the lower body, and then moved up again to an arm outspread across the floor. It held there on a face in profile cradled on the arm. I squatted down. The incident was a white male in his early thirties, lean built, smooth shaved, hair thinning; good-looking once. A dotted rhythm of blood made an arc across the plaster wall. A flying jacket was zipped tight under his chin, sticky where his cheek nuzzled the sheepskin lining. He lay as if listening to the muffle of snowflakes falling, wrapped in a long-drawn night of his own. A faint, sweet violet hung on the air. “You found him?”
“No, sir. A nurse from Bart’s stepped into the church before she went on duty this morning, it being Christmas Day. The deceased was a neighbor.” He moved the beam along the sleeve of the flying jacket, fixed long enough on curled fingers to show their manicure, then snapped it off and went back to filling the doorway.
I got on my feet and looked him in the chin. “It being Christmas Day, officer, I’m thinking I ought to step inside myself.” I took off my hat and held it over my heart, to let him weigh if he wanted a refusal on his conscience.
He nodded me at the door that led into the church. “Shouldn’t see why not, sir. Compliments of the season.”
St. Bartholomew the Great was so cavernous inside it was shrugging off ten degrees of frost. At right a halo of candlelight flickered, impossible to tell how far off. Up ahead, a blood-red sanctuary lamp burned and might have been a distant planet. The rest of the interior took its time to collect. A half circle of arches floated on squat, massive columns. Moonlight pale as butter slanted from high in the walls. I moved right, followed along a line of fat pillars, kept going and came level with the halo of light and stopped when it divided in two.
Inside the rail of a side chapel, on a wrought iron stand thick with wax, two tapers were burned almost through. At the foot of the stand, catching their glimmer, a nativity was bedded in a scatter of straw on the stone-flagged floor. It had a crib in a stable, an ox and an ass in a stall, shepherds on their knees beside the crib, and a pageboy a little way off, beckoning wide-eyed to three kings that they’d better come see. On a rise behind the stable, a somber angel who knew how it all would end was at the edge of tears. A warden with a salesman’s eye had left an open packet of tapers next to a coin slot in the wall, where you could drop in a coin and hear the sound that pirate treasure makes. In the City it counts as therapy. I checked my wristwatch, emptied my pocket change in the slot and bought up the warden’s inventory. The rest was two minutes’ industry.-Shamus Dust, Janet Rogers
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