John Lawton’s Second Violin

by Harry on May 3, 2010

I’ve read all John Lawton’s novels, and have never discussed them with anyone. I remember formulating a post in my head several years ago asking why on earth publishers give novels different names in the US and the UK, after enthusiastically buying Bluffing Mr. Churchill only to discover that it was Riptide (and, no, I am not going to buy the claim that “Churchill” was added to make the book more familiar to Americans, any more than I buy the claim that Brits know better than Americans what a philosopher’s stone is—the number of Britons who buy a book because it is named after an Al Bowlly hit is vanishingly small). The animating device in each book is that Frederick Troy of the Metropolitan Police, son of a very wealthy Russian emgire, and brother of a future Labour MP, is confronted by some mystery that is connected to some major historical event or character (WWII, Suez, fictionalized versions of Profumo and the Kray twins). This presents lots of opportunity for rich and seemingly authentic historical detail, which is the real attraction of the books (the mock-Profumo case is done especially well). Real people, major and minor, appear here and there, always well drawn and just about plausible. They’re tautly written and literate. But I’ve never felt able to recommend one without reservation—they’re very, very well done, but the central drawback is the amorality and, frankly, the unlikeability, of Troy himself, who seems, at best, to have some sort of a screw loose. I confess that I found the last one (Flesh Wounds or Blue Rondo, depending on your preference) sufficiently unpleasant that I almost gave up (to see why it was so unpleasant you have to read the others first, unfortunately).

I’m glad that I came back. Second Violin is by some distance the best of the books. Set earlier than the others, in the mid-thirties (but hinting that an even earlier book might be on its way) it focuses almost exclusively on Troy’s brother Rod, a journalist friend of Hugh Greene’s, and still a future MP, and the efforts of a young and rather mysterious Jewish tailor called Joe to escape Austria after the Anschluss to Britain, escaping death several times only, eventually, to be sent to one of the Isle of Man internment camps, along with Rod. The mystery Troy, who is not the second violin of the title but might as well be, investigates seems to be a bit an afterthought for most of the book. The journeys from Vienna—Joe’s, Rod’s, and Sigmund Freud’s—dominate the book. In the other books the mysteries and the portraits of the age vie for attention—in this one the portrait dominates. Several slightly unlikely coincidences drive the plot forward, but Lawton cleverly distracts the reader by embedding them in quite realistic accounts of real and traumatic events—outrageous as the internment of a significant number of people who were only in Britain because they opposed, or had reason to fear, the Nazis, has always seemed to me, Lawton’s harrowing account of the train journey north really brings home how cruel and destructive it was. The mystery is successful and satisfying, not least because, for once, Lawton doesn’t let Troy get in the way at all.

Very curious what others who have read these (if anyone has—I’ve never met anyone!) think.

{ 15 comments }

1

Ben Alpers 05.03.10 at 1:46 pm

Slightly OT:

I always thought that the first Harry Potter book was renamed for the American market because “sorcerer” = teh Cool (and is related to what Harry Potter is) while “philosopher”=boooooring (and gives one the misimpression that Harry Potter is a philosopher). And Americans are even less likely than the British to notice or care that while “philosopher’s stone” refers to something outside the narrow Potterverse, “sorcerer’s stone” does not.

2

Margaret Atherton 05.03.10 at 2:06 pm

Hi, Harry, I’ve been a fan of John Lawton for years although now I have to think about whether Troy is or has become unacceptably unpleasant. Don’t you think this is a genre that goes in for flawed protagonist? I confess what got me started on these novels in the first place was the oblique references to Marjory Allingham’s character, Magersfontain Lugg.

Margaret

3

Harry 05.03.10 at 3:03 pm

Wow, what a coincidence!

Yes, and I admit I prefer my protagonists boring (Clement Attlee, not Bill Clinton). I really don’t like Morse, eg. I can just about manage Robinson’s Banks; and am delighted that Dalziel is flawless.

Do you know what it was in Blue Rondo/Flesh Wounds that I found so off-putting? (No spoilers!!).

4

Satan Mayo 05.03.10 at 4:57 pm

(and, no, I am not going to buy the claim that “Churchill” was added to make the book more familiar to Americans

Who’s making that claim? I would think that “Churchill” was added to make the book look more clearly like one of those interesting foreign mysteries. This is the Swedish mystery series, this is the Icelandic mystery series, this is the Thai mystery series, and this is the WWII-era English mystery series.

5

Harry 05.03.10 at 5:03 pm

Maybe (except of course its not a WWII series — it jumps all over the middle years of the 20th century). My thought was that whatever it was signaling to Americans, it would have done just as well to signal the same to the Brits (and that the original title signaled nothing to them — even I did not associate it with Bowlly, and I am 46 and know very well who Bowly was, unlike, I’m guessing, most 46 year olds).

6

Michacel 05.03.10 at 5:58 pm

The difference in titles of books and movies between US and Britain has a lot to do with 19th century American habit of ignoring British copyright laws (i.e. stealing stuff).

The “two titles” process is the 20th century end-result of that game.

7

Anniecat45 05.03.10 at 5:59 pm

I read the first in Lawton’s series about Troy (can’t recall the title) and I wanted to like it, but I just could not sympathize or agree with his refusal to fight Germany. He seemed self-centered and whiny to me. I realize this is unfair and based on information that I have now about Germany and the Holocaust that wasn’t available to Troy, but that’s the reaction I had — and not a thought, either, but a gut-level reaction that made it very hard to even finish the book.

It sort of reverses the usual problem I have with historical mysteries, both those I love and those I don’t care for — they are usually told from a modern outlook that doesn’t take into account the actual mores of the time in which they are set, so they end up being about a modern reaction to their time, not the time itself.

8

vivian 05.04.10 at 1:06 am

Ooooh, a new author with, apparently, many books, highly recommended, only one of them possibly ‘too disturbing’. With added history. Should they be read in any particular order, or is it just “keep Flesh Wounds for last”?

I used to like mysteries that were either cozy (including boring, cerebral, light) or gory (Rankin, Cornwell). Overdosed on the latter, so it sounds like these would hit the spot. Intellectually interesting more than emotionally wrenching – life provides enough wrenches, but not always enough solved puzzles. Hence, thanks for the tip!

9

Harry 05.04.10 at 1:40 am

Its hard to recommend an order. One of the quirks is that he moves back and forth in time, so the order of publication is quite different from the order of events. I guess if you did it in order of events (maybe skipping Blue Rondo) then you might catch him out on some continuity issues. But I think I’d read in order of publication.

One advantage of jumping around in time is that it makes the awkward fact that an author’s career is much longer than a copper’s career not a problem. Dazliel, Dalgliesh and, worst of all, Pascoe (who is still said to be youngish, although his career started in the late sixties) should all be long past retirement…

10

Warren Terra 05.04.10 at 3:03 am

Never heard of it before – but from you description it sounds somewhat like a twentieth century version of Flashman – though Flashy goes past amorality to achieve a sort of antimorality.

11

ajay 05.04.10 at 1:04 pm

CS Forester’s rather good short novel about a British rifleman during the Peninsular War, “Death to the French”*, is sold in the US under the title “Rifleman Dodd” which seems rather a missed opportunity if you ask me.

*Greatly enjoyed by Winston Churchill, who almost got off a plane on his way to meet (IIRC) Giraud with the book under his arm, the title prominently displayed, until his secretary noticed and grabbed it off him at the last minute.

12

Roger Albin 05.05.10 at 12:11 am

They are definitely above average but with signs of creative fatigue as series progressed. Too much repetition of Troy’s psychological problems and pointless sexual escapades.

13

david 05.05.10 at 5:50 am

Apart from 46-year-olds who watched The Singing Detective or listen to Richard Thompson, that is.

14

Harry 05.08.10 at 5:04 pm

I’ve never seen the Singing Detective, funnily enough. The sad thing is that I already had an Al Bowlly tape when Daring Adventures came out (I bought a Johnny Ray tape in response to some Kevin Coyne song, and someone told me to listen to Al Bowlly as well).

15

simon 05.09.10 at 11:31 pm

Just came across this discussion having had a promo email from Amazon telling me a new John Lawton novel is to be published in Oct 2010, but with no further detail other than the title (A Lily of the Field) . My hopes that it was book seven in the Troy series, and not a departure into another genre, were confirmed.

I have to confess I find the Troy series in general make delightful reading (with, unlike Harry, the possible exception of Second Violin) , and Troy himself to be the classic riddle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside etc. etc. For me it’s the sheer unpleasantness and casual insouciance of the majority of the characters inhabiting Troy’s world ( with of course the exception of the Fat Man, of whom I could read about all day) that drew me in – I fear however this may say a little more about me than the protagonists…but the atmospherics and eye for period subtleties are quite superb too. Working as I have done over the years around the St Martins Lane/Seven Dials area, the pubs, and indeed, the alleyway where Troy has his ‘town house’ are very familiar. Walk into the alley from St Martins on a rainy evening and you might just catch a glimpse of a naked Kitty Stilton/Kate Cormack if the light is good..(Blue Rondo as I recall?)
As to Blue Rondo, I have some sympathy with Harry’s viewpoint, as it does have some aspects that jar a little. Possibly this is as a result of it thus far being the one and only novel of the six so far that was chronologically ‘inserted’ between two previously-written ones; Old Flames (1956) and A Little White Death (1963). I’m no writer, but I’d imagine this must be a difficult trick to pull off convincingly, and possibly the ‘unpleasantness’ stems from that. Its also a tad misconceived in that, with the two novels previously mentioned, the basic plots weave very well around the Buster Crabbe/John Profumo scandals and are set at exactly the right time, Blue Rondo clearly references the Kray Twins, but six/seven years too early. That said, I’m not sure some of Troy’s more lurid exploits in Blue Rondo would have been any more acceptable in ‘swinging London’ as it became in the mid-60’s.
Overall, it’s the essentially downbeat nature of both Old Flames and A Little White Death that I find most alluring, and yet I was disappointed enough by Second Violin to feel that, if I’d read the books in the order in which they were set rather than on publication, I might have given up on Troy there and then. I find the climax of the book particularly ill-conceived.
And yes, Troy’s morals are particularly complex, but then again, who’s aren’t? There’s a certain parallel for me with the Harvey Keitel character in the original ‘Bad Lieutenant’ film – like a car totally out of control, but one where you just know its going to be a really spectacular accident………

Oh, and if anybody wants to try another author that gets it right in a similar vein (lead character with dubious morals, excellent historical detail, fast women etc) I highly recommend David Fiddimore’s ‘Charlie Bassett’ series

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