In the Good Old Bond Tradition

By Mann, Jessica | The Spectator, August 23, 2003 | Go to article overview

In the Good Old Bond Tradition


Mann, Jessica, The Spectator


In the good old Bond tradition

Jessica Mann

Previous guests had left a pile of tatty paperbacks in our hotel, and there, buried among the blockbusters, was a thriller by John Lawton. It was a happy surprise to discover an unusually clever and original book by an author I had never heard of, and happier still when there turned out to be four more. All are mysteries with a strong political/spy element, the latest, Sweet Sunday, set in America during the turbulent time of the Vietnam war. An unsuccessful New York lawyer defends draft-dodgers, discovers the secret of a massacre and gets dangerously involved with its perpetrators. The book is both a feat of ventriloquism and a thrilling thriller, but I hope it is only a temporary diversion from the world of Lawton's earlier novels, England during the war, postwar and cold war period.

In Black Out, Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard, his trusty colleagues, eccentric relations and assorted collection of shady intimates contrive to maintain a semblance of normality during the flying-bomb blitz of 1944. Meanwhile Americans stationed in London conduct their parallel lives, somehow unaffected by food shortages, smog, ruins or rubble, and immune to local law enforcement. When the dismembered body of an unidentified German is found in a bombsite, Sergeant Troy investigates.

So far, so conventional. But this is much more than a simple murder mystery with a dramatic story line. It is a recreation of wartime London that one almost smells and hears, backed up by a well-informed expose of the period's turbulent domestic polities. Similar qualities of insight and imagination recreate postwar history in Old Flames, which concerns the visit of Bulganin and Khrushchev to Britain in 1956 and Commander Crabb's bizarre, botched attempt at underwater spying. The basis of A Little White Death is the Profumo affair, Philby's defection and other explosive scandals of 1963. That book ends with an increasingly cynical and fed-up Commander Troy of the CID retiring, so in Riptide, the last book in the series to be written, Lawton jumps back to 1941. The young Troy gets caught up with agents, emigres and spies in a sophisticated story which turns on what Stalin knew in advance about German plans to invade Russia, and who told him.

Together these four novels add up to an enjoyably subversive portrait of mid-century Britain, its places visualised with photographic precision and events described with the authority of a historian. Real people - Tom Driberg, Rebecca West, various Kennedys, the odd cabinet minister - meet fictional bit-part players who leap to almost Dickensian life. …

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