Wednesday, August 8, 2012

L is for John Lawton

The Inspector Troy series by John Lawton is one of my favorite crime fiction series. The books are variable, and I enjoyed some much more than others. Overall, however, they provide a compelling picture of England before, during and after World War II. The series covers events in the life of Inspector Frederick Troy (of Russian descent) from roughly the early 1940's up through the early 1960's. The most recent book, A Lily of the Field, starts in Vienna in 1934, but Troy does not appear until the portion of the book that covers the year 1948.

I am featuring John Lawton and his book, A Lily of the Field, in the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012 for the letter L.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter.

His US publishers, Grove/Atlantic, characterize the Inspector Troy books as a "series of espionage thrillers."  I see them as more a combination of historical fiction, spy fiction, and police procedural. The only element common to all of the books in this series is that they are set around the time period of World War II. All feature Troy as a policeman, but police procedure doesn't alway feature prominently. And not all deal with espionage.

Lawton creates some wonderful secondary characters throughout the series. Some show up in nearly every book... the Polish pathologist, Kolankiewicz, Chief Inspector Jack Wildeve, Larissa Tosca. Some are featured strongly in one or two books: Troy's brother, Rod, who is active in politics; Walter Stilton of Special Branch at Scotland Yard, and his daughter Kitty, who also works for Scotland Yard.

This praise for A Lily of the Field (in a Mike Ripley column at Shotsmag) describes the entire series very well:
An immaculately researched thriller set in pre-war Europe and post-war London which takes in the Nazi Holocaust, Russian espionage and the development of the atomic bomb, but at heart it shows off what Lawton does best, which is to cast a worldly-wise, left-leaning, eye of the foibles of English society. This is a wonderful addition to the Detective Inspector Troy canon (Lawton’s Troy family novels have spanned the period 1930s-1960s though not necessarily in chronological order), and Troy, who has been on the scene for 16 years now, is one of the major characters of British crime fiction; and one of the most unsung.
I love this series because it covers a period in time that I enjoy reading about and want to know more about and the books are so beautifully written. Sometimes, the pacing is quick and I am engrossed in the story throughout, and sometimes the plotting seems chaotic and the pace drags, but the writing is always great. The progression of the books is not in a straight line chronologically. A Lily of the Field is set in the 1930's, and the early 1940's, then picks up with Inspector Troy in 1948. Some earlier books in the series took place in the 1960's. So at any point you may learn something that illuminates something that happened in an earlier book, but later chronologically. Even though the series hops around in time, I still think reading them in order published is the best way to go. Others disagree: See this review of A Lily of the Field at Murder by Type.

One criticism I noticed in several reviews of this series was the proliferation of coincidences, or unlikely relationships. That is probably true, but this aspect did not bother me. Another criticism, which I will admit bothers me, is the heavy use of sexual encounters, and the amorality of the main character. This doesn't happen in every book. The author has responded to such criticisms that his use of sex in the novels is not gratuitous, it is intended specifically to enhance the story, and that Troy is used by women. I can see his points. I think it is important to point out this aspect of these books to anyone interested in the series, although I think the excellent writing, stories, and characterization vastly outweigh any negative aspects.

I recently read the sixth book in the series, Flesh Wounds (US title), and finished the most recent book, A Lily of the Field, on Sunday.

Flesh Wounds, originally published as Blue Rondo in the UK, is set in London of 1959. Troy is older and is being encouraged to retire due to injuries received on the job. A former lover, Kitty Stilton, has returned to London. She is the wife of an American presidential hopeful. Thus private investigator Joey Rork is in town to insure that Kitty behaves while in England. The complex plot involves dismembered bodies and criminal gangs.

This was not one of my favorites in the series, and one of the reasons was the over-the-top sex. But it was a very good plot, and it kept me interested from beginning to end. And I was very interested in the continuing characters.

This review at Crime Scraps describes the book and the setting in much more detail and suggests some possible real-life persons as models for some of the characters.

Like some other books in this series, A Lily of the Field covers a span of years. It starts in 1934, leading up to World War II, covers some events during World War II, and picks up again after the war is over. The first portion of the book is called "Audacity" and features Méret Voytek, a talented young cellist living in Vienna, who is not Jewish but ends up in Auschwitz; her teacher and friend, Viktor Rosen, who ends up interned in England on the Isle of Man; and Dr. Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist, who is involved in the development of the atomic bomb.

The second part of the book, "Austerity," is set in 1948 London, and brings in Frederick Troy and his brother Rod, who was also interned on the Isle of Man due to issues with his citizenship. [Coincidentally, London was the host city for the Olympics in 1948. That does not figure much in the story, but it is mentioned.]

This is a longish book, and seems almost like two books, although there are definite links between the two stories. The crime in this book is the murder of a Polish painter, shot on an Underground platform with a very unusual gun.  It doesn't occur until towards the middle, in the second part. As in many of Lawton's books, the resolution of the crime is less important than the overall story and the picture of Britain during these years.

I really liked this book and the story it tells. My two favorite books in the series are A Lily of the Field and Bluffing Mr. Churchill (my review here). I also really enjoyed Second Violin, which I reviewed here.


Anna said...

Sounds like a series worth checking out, especially since I love books set before, during, and after WWII.

Peggy Ann said...

Excellent post, Tracy! Very informative for someone (like me) who has not read Lawton

Anonymous said...

Tracy - You've chosen a highly talented author for L! Lawton I respect authors such as Lawton who really "do their homework" to evoke a setting and time period. He's an author who deserves recognition.

Bill Selnes said...

I have never read any of the Lawton books. I have been missing a worthy author.