Saturday, August 8, 2015

John Lawton thriller skewers tribal culture and WWII mythology

Cover image from Amazon

Although it came out 12 years after Black Out, Second Violin is the earliest of John Lawton's WWII detective series featuring Frederick Troy. The maverick Scotland Yard Detective is the younger son of son of a wealthy newspaper magnate.

His father, Alex Troy, an eccentric self-made Russian emigre, chose to settle his family in England some years before the Russian Revolution. Now the family is grown and Alexei Troy is a powerful figure in the world of journalism.

"Freddie," as he's called at home, has a brother Roderick, also a journalist, who, against his father's advice, chose not to get himself naturalized as a British citizen. He enjoys the romance of having been born elsewhere.

Thus Rod is interned when the British government rounds up possible enemy aliens. He explains to a fellow inmate, a German orchestra conductor, that he is "the ambiguous Englishman. The Home Counties, Harrow and Cambridge...a plum in my voice, a striped tie at my neck, the label of a Mayfair bespoke tailor on the inside pocket of my suit...but born in Vienna as my parents passed through from Russia, to London."

This is partly Rod's story, as he finds himself imprisoned in a former school for girls on the Isle of Man with a lot of European emigres, including Polish-born Billy Jacks, a tailor who is almost more Cockney than the local-born Cockneys.

The story progresses as Sergeant Troy works to solve the murders of several East End rabbis. Oddly enough, all were signatories of a missive that appeared on Alex Troy's desk. Sent on the eve of WWII, the letter calls on the British government to imprison a dozen British Nazis including Sir Oswald Mosley, a Cambridge professor, and two  Members of Parliament.

Though Troy and other newspapermen are asked to publish it, the government asks them not to. The author seamlessly weaves real history and characters into his tale, and his literary references are elaborate and well-considered, as Peter Rozovsky points out on Detectives Beyond Borders.

John Lawton, self-described as a "degenerating misanthrope," is not only a dab hand with history, but is keenly aware of the social mores of the era he writes about. He's a brilliant creator of terse descriptions of people and settings and darkly humorous truths. One character allows a stubby moustache to "brutalize an otherwise pleasing face," and as a London-bound train leaves the countryside behind, the city "wrapp[s] the green world in her grey winding-sheet."

"Spookery baffles me," a policeman tells Troy in reference to MI5. Later, when Steerforth visits the Troy family home to inform Rod he is about to be detained, Lawton tells the reader that the secret service man was out of his depth; "Rank was no match for class." Later on the same page, we learn that "Rank took over from class."

As the detainees leave St. Pancras, Lawton lays out a hilariously dark description of their behaviour in terms of correct procedure for train journeys. "The parting was over, the adventure had not yet begun -- far too early to look at one another. One would not do that much before West Hampstead, and one would certainly be un-English to speak before St. Albans -- and these men, foreigners all, are all keen to be English."

Like his mother, Troy plays piano. When she learns Rod is about to be detained, Troy realizes that her music is "her way, one of her ways, of administering morphine to the soul." Later she passes her son in the hallway "trailing her mood in a rough wake that only his father would not feel." 

In a conversation with his daughter one the eve of his detention as an 'enemy alien,' Billy Jacks tells her he doesn't feel Jewish. Nor has he ever identified with Poland, his birthplace, or Germany, where he lived as a baby. He explains that his family lived "wherever your zayde laid his hat. Pogromed here, pogromed there, old Macdonald had a pogrom..."

I found this book is an enormously satisfying read. Recognizing that blood and gore are necessary tropes allowed me to enjoy Lawton's linguistic precision as well as historical and sociological references. With a deft hand, he skewers tribalism, snobbery, stupidity in high places and the false romance of war mythology. Indeed, Lawton precedes the opening of Second Violin with a quotation from a wartime memoir by Rose Macaulay, who does a little skewering herself.

I've read three Troy novels so far, and plan to read the others soon, while the atmosphere of Troy's time and place is still upon me.

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