Sunday, August 01, 2004

John Lawton and the English past

Last week I promised to write about a novelist who uses the past history of England, as a backdrop to his books, to rather better advantage (in my opinion) than Jake Arnott. His name is John Lawton, and he writes books which are in the crime fiction/thriller category. Comparators: Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, perhaps.

Lawton is reportedly a retired TV producer who has turned to writing fiction; and he does it extremely well. In 1995 he began with Black Out, which, as the title suggests, is set in the second world war -- 1944 to be precise. We are immediately introduced to his lead character, a policeman called Frederick Troy. At this stage of his career Troy is a mere Sergeant, but he has an intriguing background, being the son of a distinguished Russian emigre. Lawton provides us with not just a good thriller, but an intriguing set of insights into what wartime conditions were really like -- as opposed to many of the myths.

In 1996 Lawton produced Old Flames, which is set in 1956. Here Lawton again develops his plot against the background of real events, in this case chiefly the visit to London by the two Russian leaders, Bulganin and Krushchev. A real-life embarrassing incident, when British intelligence seem to have lost one of their operatives while trying to spy on the Russian duo, features heavily. And Troy, you will remember, is the son of a Russian and so speaks the language.

Third in the series (1998) is A Little White Death, set in 1963. Amazon lists a non-fiction book called 1963: Five Hundred Days, which is also by one John Lawton, and I think it must be the same author. The year 1963 was a big one in English history, being flanked by the unmasking of a Russian spy at the end of 1962 and the Beatles first trip to America in early 1964. In between we had a few things like the Profumo scandal and the resignation of a Prime Minister. It is against this background that we see Troy in action yet again.

Fourth in the Troy series is Riptide, in which Lawton takes us back to 1941, but still with the same lead character. And a fifth book, Blue Rondo, is due for publication in March next year. That one is to be set in the late 1950s.

Lawton seems to have spent some considerable time in the US, because he has also published a novel with an American background in much the same style as his Troy series. This is Sweet Sunday. The lead character here is Tudor Raines, a New York private eye, and the date is 1969: Vietnam, Woodstock, et cetera. I did not personally find this as interesting as the books set in England, but US readers would probably hold the reverse view.

All in all, Lawton is a literate, thoughtful and skilled writer in a genre which is often regarded as inferior to the literary novel. The latter view is complete balls, of course, and most people, fortunately, have the good sense to ignore it.


Anonymous said...

I like your comments on John Lawton. I hope your readers seek out his books for themselves. I have just finished reading 'Rip Tide' and it is an absolute ripper. Cannot recommend it too highly. Goes well outside traditional thriller territory. Is humorous, deals in depth with main player's characters and plays up American attitudes to English institutions e.g the good old English cup of tea (he calls it the 'Ceremony'). A funny/sad sexual thread also runs through this.

Anonymous said...

I havbe just read one of John Lawtons boos and found it very easy readinding, however I don't know if he was in London when the blitz was on , but his coments on the taste of bread are all wrong,I was a teenager at the time and there was nothing better than a hot crusty loaf straight from the bakers oven

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Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm a big fan of Second Violin and hope to read more of the Troy novels.
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"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Bob Brewer said...

I am trying to reach John Lawton; I have a question regarding his book "The Unfortunate Englishman". He mentions that Ida Siekmann was a nurse, and long widowed. I would like to know what his reference for this is. How might I contact Mr. Lawton? Please contact me at grantorino351c at gmail dot com. Thanks in advance.

Bob Brewer said...

Anonymous said...

I am just about to start the last in the Troy series. I know I shall feel bereft when I finish it. Lawton manages to express profound sadness and trauma whilst retaining the ability to produce laugh out loud lines and yet be credible in both modes. This is a rare gift. Looking forward to reading the rest of Lawton's oeuvre.