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.

Aerodynamics Exhibits Left-Wing Bias?

by John Holbo on May 3, 2010

I don’t want to take this Mario Kart socialism complaint too seriously, but it does seem worth mentioning that the feature of the kart peloton the author objects to as socialistic is also a feature of any peleton in the actually existing physical universe: namely, it can be smart to let some other sucker take the lead.

But it is gross injustice for the universe to burden natural leaders with higher rates of physical taxation, as it were. Abolish the draft! (No wonder the damn Europeans love cycling so much.)

One problem with the recent discussion of epistemic closure or, in my preferred terminology, agnotology, ( that is, the manufacture and maintenance of ignorance) on the US[1] political right is that a lot of it has been discussed in fairly abstract terms. However, there is a fair bit of agreement that climate change is both a key example, and that the rightwing construction of a counternarrative to mainstream science on this issue marks both an important example, and a major step in the journey towards a completely closed parallel universe of discourse.

Climate change as a whole is too big and complicated to be useful in understanding what is going on, so it is useful to focus on one particular example, which does not require any special knowledge of climate science or statistics. The Oregon Petition, commonly quoted as showing that “31000 scientists reject global warming” not only fits the bill perfectly but was raised by Jim Manzi in his critique of Mark Levin.

So, it provides a useful test case for understanding the agnotology of the right.

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