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Fred Troy

HAMMER TO FALL . . .Between the covers

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English author and screenwriter John Lawton has long been a favourite of those readers who like literary crime fiction, and his eight Frederick Troy novels have become classics. Set over a long time-frame from the early years of WW2 to the 1960s, the books feature many real-life figures or, as in A Little White Death (1998), characters based on real people, in this case the principals in the Profumo Affair. In Then We Take Berlin (2013) Lawton introduced a new character, an amoral chancer whose real surname – Holderness – has morphed into Wilderness. Joe Wilderness is a clever, corrupt and calculating individual whose contribution to WW2 was minimal, but his career trajectory has widened from being a Schieber (spiv, racketeer) in the chaos of post-war Berlin to being in the employ of the British Intelligence services.

HTFHe is no James Bond figure, however. His dark arts are practised in corners, and with as little overt violence as possible. Hammer To Fall begins with a flashback scene,establishing Joe’s credentials as someone who would have felt at home in the company of Harry Lime, but we move then to the 1960s, and Joe is in a spot of bother. He is thought to have mishandled one of those classic prisoner exchanges which are the staple of spy thrillers, and he is sent by his bosses to weather the storm as a cultural attaché in Finland. His ‘mission’ is to promote British culture by traveling around the frozen north promoting visiting artists, or showing British films. His accommodation is spartan, to say the least. In his apartment:

The dining table looked less likely to be the scene of a convivial meal than an autopsy.”

Some of the worthies sent to Finland to wave the British flag are not to Joe’s liking:

“For two days Wilderness drove the poet Prudence Latymer to readings. She was devoutly Christian – not an f-word passed her lips – and seemed dedicated to simple rhyming couplets celebrating dance, spring, renewal, the natural world and the smaller breeds of English and Scottish dog.It was though TS Eliot had never lived. By the third day Wilderness was considering shooting her.”

Before he left England, his wife Judy offered him these words of advice:

“If you want a grant to stage Twelfth Night in your local village hall in South Bumpstead, Hampshire, the Arts Council will likely as not tell you to fuck off …. So, if you want to visit Lapland, I reckon your best bet is to suggest putting on a nude ballet featuring the over-seventies, atonal score by Schoenberg, sets by Mark Rothko ….. Ken Russell can direct … all the easy accessible stuff …. and you’ll probably pick up a whopping great grant and an OBE as well.”

JohnLawton.-Credit-Nick-Lockett-318x318So far, so funny – and Lawton (right) is in full-on Evelyn Waugh mode as he sends up pretty much everything and anyone. The final act of farce in Finland is when Joe earns his keep by sending back to London, via the diplomatic bag, several plane loads of …. well, state secrets, as one of Joe’s Russian contacts explains:

The Soviet Union has run out of bog roll. The soft stuff you used to sell to us in Berlin is now as highly prized as fresh fruit or Scotch whisky. We wipe our arses on documents marked Classified, Secret and sometimes even Top Secret. and the damned stuff won’t flush. So once a week a surly corporal lights a bonfire of Soviet secrets and Russian shit.”

But, as in all good satires – like Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and Catch 22 – the laughter stops and things take a turn to the dark side. Joe’s Finnish idyll comes to an end, and he is sent to Prague to impersonate a tractor salesman. By now, this is 1968, and those of us who are longer in the tooth know what happened in Czechoslavakia in 1968. Prague has a new British Ambassador, and one very familiar to John Lawton fans, as it is none other than Frederick Troy. As the Russians lose patience with Alexander Dubček and the tanks roll in, Joe is caught up in a desperate gamble to save an old flame, a woman whose decency has, over the years, been a constant reproach to him:

“Nell Burkhardt was probably the most moral creature he’d ever met. Raised by thieves and whores back in London’s East End, he had come to regard honesty as aberrant. Nell had never stolen anything, never lied …led a blameless life, and steered a course through it with the unwavering compass of her selfless altruism.”

Hammer To Fall is a masterly novel, bitingly funny and heartbreaking by turns. I think A Lily Of The Field is Lawton’s masterpiece, but this runs it pretty damned close. It is published by Grove Press, and is out today, 2nd April 2020.

 

For more about John Lawton click this link

THE TROY DOSSIER . . .

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BACK IN OCTOBER 2017 I reviewed the latest book in a series which, given the sheer hell of having to make a choice, would be by my side as, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Ben Gunn, I go slowly mad on my desert island. John Lawton has created the ultimate anti-hero in Frederick Troy. He is a brilliant copper, intelligent and fearless, but with the moral compass of a rattlesnake. The Troy novels bestride WWII and take us well into living memory (if you are as old as me, that is!)

FRIENDS AND TRAITORS didn’t disappoint, and Lawton’s portrait of the doomed, drunken and fatally flawed spy Guy Burgess was masterly. It seemed, however, that the novel came and went with little fanfare, but now Atlantic Books are re-releasing the novel with not so much a flourish of trumpets as an entire brass band. Their publicity people have been working overtime, and the pack which reached me is intriguing. My first reaction was to think that it’s about time that someone took John Lawton seriously, and recognised that he is one of a mere handful of living British writers who will, in the fullness of time, be considered ‘great.’

MY OCTOBER REVIEW is here, but if you want my feelings in a nutshell, then forgive me if I quote my own words.

“To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.”

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FRIENDS AND TRAITORS … Between the covers

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After a pause of some years, during which he has introduced the character of Joe Wilderness (Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman) John Lawton re-introduces his most beguiling character, Frederick Troy. Troy is the son of a Russian emigré-turned-newspaper-baron, but he has turned his back on that world (if not its riches and status) to become a London copper. Learning his trade as a bobby on the beat in WWII London, he rises to become one of the top policemen of his generation. His older brother, Sir Rodyon ‘Rod’ Troy has turned to politics, and in this novel he is Shadow Home Secretary in the 1950s Labour Opposition of Hugh Gaitskell.

FATFriends and Traitors focuses mostly on the 1951 defection – and its aftermath – of intelligence officer Guy Burgess, to the Soviet Union. A huge embarrassment to the British government at the time, it was also about personalities, Britain’s place in the New World Order – and its attitudes to homosexuality. Burgess’s usefulness to the Soviets was largely symbolic, but the crux of the story is the events surrounding Burgess’s regrets, and heartfelt wish to come home. Troy interviews him in a Vienna hotel.

“’I want to come home.’
‘Yes,’ said Troy softly. ‘I’d guessed as much.’
‘I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the clubs. I miss the Dog and Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who can fart the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God, I miss my mother.’”

Troy becomes caught up with what is later revealed to be a plot within a plot – within a subterfuge – within a brutal exercise in double dealing. One thing is for certain, though – the British establishment has no intention of a ‘kiss and make up’ process with Burgess. Rod Troy is summoned to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who conceals his razor sharp political awareness by pottering about the kitchen in a tatty cardigan, making tea:

“But then, the old man could be amazingly elliptical, subtle to the point of obscurity, to the point where half the nation had willingly misunderstood his ‘never had it so good’ speech. However, there was nothing elliptical about ‘I don’t want Burgess back – at any price.’”

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One of the joys of the Fred Troy novels is the vast repertory company of characters, some fictional and others actual, who appear throughout the series. One such is the beguiling Hungarian musician Méret Voytek, who took centre stage in A Lily of the Field (click the link to read more). Voytek, now a Soviet agent, and Troy are temporarily reunited as part of the subterfuge surrounding Burgess’s attempts to return to Britain.

“He’d not set eyes on Voytek since the day he’d stuck her on the ferry to Calais ten years ago. At twenty-four she’d looked older than her years, her hair prematurely, brazenly white after a year in the hands of the Nazis. Now, she had more flesh on her bones, she had dyed her hair back to its youthful black, no longer wearing white as the badge of her suffering.”

AR-AM348_LAWTON_12S_20160302163714Lawton (right) was born in 1949, so would have only the vaguest memories of growing up in an austere and fragile post-war Britain, but he is a master of describing the contradictions and social stresses of the middle years of the century. Here, he describes Westcott, a notoriously persistent MI5 interrogator, sent to quiz Troy on the events in Vienna:

“His generation had not worn well. A childhood in the over-romanticised Edwardian Age, an adolescence spent wondering if the Great War would last long enough to kill him, and then thrust out into the twenties, into the General Strike and the Depression – the Age of Disappointment – and the thirties, what Auden had called ‘that dirty, double-dealing decade’ – one not designed to leave a man with any memories of heroism, cameradie, or death”

Fred Troy is something of an anti-hero. His attitude towards women would have him outed in the comments section of today’s Guardian, and his approach to moral certainties would, at best, be described as pragmatic. Over the course of the series, he beds many women, but Friends and Traitors has him attached (but not exclusively) to a wholesome lass from Derbyshire, called Shirley Foxx. They go to her home town, to rediscover and reclaim the house where she grew up. In the use of evocative product names, Lawton has found a sharp weapon, and he is not afraid to use it:

“He found her in the bedroom. Childhood spread out across a handknotted rag rug – one large doll, one small lacking its left arm, half a dozen Ladybird books, a dozen Collins classics, a shrivelled bouquet of posies in a faded red ribbon, a bar of soap in the shape of Minnie Mouse …”

While Shirley is trying to exorcise her childhood in order to make sense of her new life, Troy beds another woman but is then called to investigate her murder. Having sorted out her parents’ house, Shirley makes a surprise return to Troy’s London flat in St Martin’s Lane:

“’But it’s done now. The loo works, hot and cold running in a new sink, the house is let and Rosie and Malcolm installed. I am …..home!’ Of course she was. He didn’t think he’d noticed his home in days. He had fallen through a hole in time and space. He had lived with the dead, and could not handle the living woman in front of him.”

To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.

Friends and Traitors is available here,
and you can check reading options for the other Fred Troy novels.

THE MUSIC OF CRIME FICTION

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V: ADAGIO

alotfJohn Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around World War II. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.

Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field, where we follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist.

As a twelve-year-old, she begins lessons in cello and piano from an eminent musician, Viktor Rosen. He realises instantly that she is prodigiously talented, and he gives her a gift:

Cello graphic

After the Anschluss, through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked. Méret’s skill as a musician has already been noted but, ever naive, she questions her friend Magda about why she has been singled out.

Quote2In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of her humanity.

In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.

Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.

One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Fred Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.

‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.
As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.
“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”

“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”
She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy  ‘f’ in one corner.
Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.

A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake.  Above all, of course, it is about music. Méret’s brilliance as a musician is both her curse and her salvation.

A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the book’s cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.

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Follow the links below to read the previous four parts in the series.

IV: SCHERZO

III: RONDO

II: MARCHE FUNEBRE

I: PRELUDE & FUGUE

THE GREAT WAR and CRIME FICTION … An introduction

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“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

Reflective essays on Fully Booked don’t usually begin with a quotation from the nearest thing to a monster that the 20th Century produced, but in the case of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, we make an exception. I suppose that when someone is the runner-up to Mao Zedong in the mass-murderer hit parade, you might hope that your words outlive your mortal life.

With Stalin’s cynical but perceptive maxim in mind, it would be excusable if a few criminal murders here or there were to be largely ignored in the maelstrom of shot and shell which was The Great War, but both in real life and in the minds of crime fiction writers, a death is a death, particularly if it occurs for reasons other than the victim being too near to the detonation of a minenwerfer or a Stokes Mortar round.

It could be said that novels set in the various theatres of WWII resonate with greater intensity to readers since 1945. In more recent times, and with pure crime fiction in mind, we have the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, the masterly Fred Troy novels by John Lawton, and the hugely underrated John Madden books by Rennie Airth. Further back, further afield, and further from the crime genre we should not forget the contribution made by American writers such as Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller.

 

Literary

In a purely literary sense, the standout novels which have the The Great War as their backbone have to include Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and a novel which, in my view, trumps them all – Covenant With Death, by John Harris. Harris also wrote one of the iconic novels of WWII, which was a huge success both as a book and a film – The Sea Shall Not Have Them. None of these books could in any way be called a crime novel, and so they must stay outside of our collection.

DonkeysWhat needs to be held up like a bright lantern in our search for good WWI crime fiction, is the fact that those six years are like no other in British history. They have produced a mythology which is unique in modern memory, and with it a collection of tropes, images, phrases and conventions, all of which find their way into the consciousness of writers and readers. Military historians tell only part of the story: the Alan Clark theory of The Donkeys and the anti-war polemic of the the 1960s and 70s has one version of events; more recent accounts of the war by revisionist historians such as John Terrain and Gary Sheffield tell another tale altogether. In considering books and writers for this feature I have used two criteria. Firstly, there must be crime involved that is distinct from the licensed slaughter of wartime and, secondly, the events of the war must cast their shadows over the narrative either in a contemporary sense or in the form of a social or political legacy.

PART ONE of

TGWACH feature

will be published on
FRIDAY 4th NOVEMBER 2016

WW2 HISTORICAL CRIME FICTION (1) A Lily of the Field

EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD LIST, and I’m no exception. To kick off a series of features on historical crime fiction, I am starting with my own favourite period – World War 2. I just missed it, by a couple of years, but both my mother and father served, as did my wife’s parents, and so ‘The War’, as it was always known in our house was – and remains – very much part of my consciousness. My selection is subjective, and there is no order of merit, but each of the five is a cracking read.

ALOTFA LILY OF THE FIELD by John Lawton

Lawton is a master of historical fiction set in and around the war. His central character is Fred Troy, a policeman of Russian descent. His emigré father is what used to be called a ‘Press Baron’. Fred’s brother Rod will go on to become a Labour Party MP in the 1960s, but is interned during the war. His sisters are bit players, but memorable for their sexual voracity. Neither man nor woman is safe from their advances.

Apart from being an elegant and sharp-tongued writer, Lawton’s great skill is to people his books with real personalities of the period. Sometimes they are thinly disguised, but more often than not they play themselves. Across the spread of Fred Troy novels, we meet, in no particular order, Nikita Kruschev, the entire Labour Shadow Cabinet, Winston Churchill’s gunmaker and an American presidential candidate.

Fred becomes one of London’s top coppers, but to categorise the novels as police procedurals is accurate only in as far as that there are policemen in the books, and they occasionally have procedures. All this being said, Troy is in the background during much of A Lily of the Field. We follow the life of teenager Méret Voytek, a brilliant young Viennese cellist. Through her own naivete and a tragic act of fate, she is caught holding a bundle of anti-Nazi leaflets while traveling on the tram. She is taken by the SS and ends up in Auschwitz. Meanwhile, her parents have been likewise detained, and their family home ransacked.

In the bitterest of paradoxes, the Auschwitz commandant, has a musical ear, and so he puts together an orchestra made up of the many skilled inmates. One of their bizarre duties is to play beautiful music as their less talented companions trudge off to work in the morning. Méret plays for her life, literally. The physical privations she undergoes are heart-breaking, but still she plays, still she clings on to what is left of life.

In January 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, and the British and Americans from the west, the Germans realise that the game is up. Auschwitz inmates who are too infirm to walk are shot, and the remainder are sent out, under guard, to start the infamous Death March. In the freezing conditions few survive, but just as Meret is about to succumb, their column is overtaken by a Russian detachment. Salvation? Hardly. The first instinct of the Russian soldiers is to rape the women. Méret is saved by a no-nonsense officer. At this point, Fred Troy aficionados will recognise Major Larissa Tosca, Fred’s one-time lover. She has, in her time, spied for both America and for Russia, but here her cap bears the Red Star.

Long-time Lawton readers will know that he leaps about between the years with a sometimes bewildering agility. True to form, the climax of this book is played out in post war London and Paris. Méret’s rescue by the Russians has come at a price, and we find her tangled up in the spy ‘games’ which characterised much of the Cold War period. Lawton is much too clever a writer just to tell this one tale, however gripping it may be. Woven into the fabric is another thread which involves an interned Hungarian physicist, Dr. Karel Szabo, who ends up as a key figure in the American efforts to build and test the first atomic bomb.

One of the key figures from the spy ring of which Méret is a part is murdered in London, and it is then that Frec Troy becomes involved. For all his many qualities, Troy is an inveterate womaniser, but he is not a sexual beast, and the late scenes where he spends time with the fragile Méret, still beautiful but old before her time, are haunting in their compassion.

‘Troy had never heard her laugh. It was like that moment in Ninotchka when Garbo laughs on-screen for the first time. It is not merely that she laughs, but that she laughs so long and so loud.

As the laughter subsided she was grasping at words and not managing to get a sentence out.

“Oh, Troy ….oh, Troy..this is….this is a farce. Don’t you see? Viktor taught us the same part.”
“We’re two left-handed women trying to dance backward. Neither of us knows the man’s part.”

She reached up her sleeve for a handkerchief to dab her tears and found none. Troy gave her his, a huge square of Irish linen with an overfancy  ‘f’ in one corner.

Being drunk did not make her loquacious. In that, she was like Troy. At two in the morning Voytek was deeply asleep in front of the fire. Troy picked her up, astonished at how little she weighed, carried her upstairs and slid her into the spare bed. She did not wake. He went to his own bed.’

A Lily of the Field is far from being a dry history novel where the factual details are more important than the plot and the dialogue. It is tense, funny, occasionally very violent, and written with a style and fluency which leaves lesser authors struggling in Lawton’s wake. A final little gem, which I only noticed recently. If you look closely at the cover, you can see Méret Voytek, in her red coat, moving away from us. With her cello slung over her shoulder, she walks into history.

A Lily of the Field is available in all formats, and John Lawton has his own Amazon page
and website.

 

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