Thursday, June 09, 2005

John Lawton: Blue Rondo

This blog has been going for rather more than a year now, and I suspect that a number of themes are beginning to emerge. Perhaps theme isn't quite the right word, but what I mean is that there are a number of things that I find myself saying fairly often.

I repeat these points (a) because I think that they are important and true, and (b) because I think they will be useful to those of you who are planning a career (pause for sardonic laughter) as a writer.

One of the points that I make from time to time is this: a novel really isn't any sort of a big deal. Reading a novel is a bit like going out for a meal, watching a football match, seeing a movie, taking a walk in the park. You do these things because you hope that they will give you pleasure. A novel is, therefore, just one of the many (and rapidly multiplying) sources of entertainment and emotional satisfaction which are available to the super-privileged people of the western world.

You will readily observe, however, that there are those who would have you believe that the novel is something more than just another source of entertainment. The literary establishment, so called, maintains that the novel -- when it takes the form of 'serious literature' -- is a species of 'high art'; and high art (according to these self-appointed experts) is something far, far more precious and important than a football match or a TV show or a CD by Britney.

At this point, unless firmly disciplined, I tend to splutter a bit and undergo a kind of apoplectic fit of indignation at the bone-headed stupidity of the human mind. Particularly the kind of human mind which was had about twenty years of formal education but persists in believing that the moon is made of green cheese.

Let me therefore content myself with saying that the high-art merchants are fuzzy thinkers, at best. At worst they are conmen, frauds and hucksters, devious sons of bitches who have found themselves a very cushy berth teaching Eng. Lit. or media studies or some such, and are determined to hang on to that comfortable way of life no matter how far they have to bend the facts.

The simple truth is that the novel is not anything important, like a cure for cancer or an engine which will work with water as its fuel. A novel is simply something that may, if you are lucky, provide you with a few hours of harmless enjoyment.

All of which is a preamble to a brief discussion of John Lawton's new novel Blue Rondo. Lawton is man whose output I have discussed before, so you can read about him there if you wish. For present purposes, it will suffice to say that he is an English author who works in what I suppose we must call the thriller genre. And, since he writes thrillers, Lawton is a man who is systematically ignored, if not actually despised, by the literary establishment, i.e. those who profess to police our culture for us. (And as far as I am concerned they needn't bother.)

Most of Lawton's books are set in England, sometime between 1944 and 1963, and they feature the same man, Frederick Troy, who is a police officer by profession. He is also the son of a wealthy immigrant of Russian origins; and Troy's brother is a leading member of the Labour party.

In Blue Rondo we are in 1959. Troy is now a Chief Superintendent at Scotland Yard, but much of the early part of the book deals with his friends, family, and lovers. It is absolutely none the worse for that.

When the criminal aspect of the novel gets under way, Troy finds himself up against a couple of villains who are clearly based on the real-life Kray twins. Many of the other characters are either real-life people from the 1950s -- Hugh Gaitskell and Tom Driberg for instance -- or they are based on real people, here being given new names. Lady Docker and Lord Boothby were, I would guess, a couple of Lawton's models.

Lawton also uses real locales. Troy, for instance, lives in Godwin Court, which is more of an alley than a street. I haven't been there for years, but I used to hang out there once upon a time. There was a small coffee shop, where a friend of a friend used to work: Peter Farmer, last heard of designing sets for ballet companies. And the literary agent Margaret (aka Peggy) Ramsay used to have her office there.

Unless my memory deceives me, Godwin Court was also, incidentally, the place where the actor Michael Redgrave had a hideway in which he conducted his sexual adventures. Lawton, I think, makes reference to it in one of his other books. It's a long time ago, but I seem to remember that Redgrave had a thing for guardsmen (i.e. soldiers) and that some S&M was involved. Though whether the guardsmen beat him, or he them, I neither know nor care. No doubt Alan Strachan's 2004 biography would reveal details.

But I digress.

My main point it to say that, bearing in mind my views on the nature of the novel, John Lawton's Blue Rondo is about as good a book as you could sensibly hope to find. It is intelligent, literate, gripping, and sheds some interesting light on past events. Among its other virtues, it is a bloody good detective story.

This book will be particularly enjoyed, I suspect, by English people of a certain age. Americans aged 23 are unlikely to find it so enthralling. Although, having said that, there is no reason why not. It is certainly professional enough.

The novel also has a slightly unexpected humorous side to it. There is a funeral scene which is as funny as I have ever read (though funerals, admittedly, are not often amusing). However, when Lawton tells us that the officiating priest was a certain Canon Chasuble, I fear he may be going a step too far. And is there really a wine called Couve de Murville? I rather doubt it.

I only wish there were more in the John Lawton oeuvre that I had not already read. But there aren't. As my mother used to say, they don't write 'em quick enough for me.


Anonymous said...

Dear GOB: The U.S. press is making quite a big to-do over your fellow countryman, Charles Chadwick, and his first novel, "It's All Right Now," published by HarperCollins. Chadwick is a 72-year-old civil servant. Newsweek goes so far as to ask "Where's this guy been?" and then compares him to Beckett and, closer to home, Joseph Heller. The New Yorker apparently likes the book while noting it does take "stamina" to get through it. Any thoughts, illucidations or comments?

Kelly said...

Thanks for the head's up, GOB. Can't wait to read it.

And even though I teach "the novel" to spoiled 18-22 year olds myself I would say I do so only because it is my favorite form of entertainment. I really don't like much music, for example--popular or otherwise.

I will look for "Blue Rondo"

Anonymous said...

GOB, I'm so pleased you mentioned John Lawton again. Not many people seem to have heard of him, but I love his books. I've just started "Blue Rondo" and found myself smiling and chuckling within the first few pages. I'm back with a set of characters who entertain me so much and whose lives interest me. Great, intelligent writing, wonderful characterisation. And no, he doesn't get these books out fast enough for me either but I so appreciate the quality when they do arrive.