Saturday, 19 December 2009

“Second Violin”, John Lawton

Warning – there might be a spoiler or two in here, if you haven't read "Second Violin" and want to preserve suspense, might be best to look away now…

Sparked by a great blog post on Crime Scraps I was reminded how great John Lawton is as a writer, and there's an extra appeal to his style of prose in a London winter. His reinterpretation of mid 20th century history is also powerfully seductive, having weaved a complex universe with characters touching on the heart of power throughout. In this light he can be compared to other chroniclers of the 20th century such as Simon Raven and Anthony Powell.

I had initially wanted to reread his non-Troy book, "Sweet Sunday", which isn't London at all, and one coming on top of what initially had been the Troy trilogy felt dramatically different. In the intervening years however, Lawton's style of writing has changed, and I've got a lot more used to this new way of writing, which made me wonder if I'd now discover additional layers to the almost forgotten "Sweet Sunday".

It a humbling confession, but my fiction shelves aren't organised at all. There's a big pile under the bedside table, there are a few interspersed among more serious tomes in the study, and there's a big bookshelf in the guest room, where I should have a system, but don't, and all that's really clear is that it's overfull. As a result of this filing chaos, on Sunday evening, when casting around trying to lay my hands on "Sweet Sunday" it was nowhere to be seen. So, I thought, why not slake my Lawton thirst with something else, and "Second Violin" readily came to hand.

As such this isn't really much of a review, much more a case of some musing on Lawton and his core creation, Fred Troy. It's not intended to be definitive, and at some stage someone should write something really impressive in terms of literary criticism about them, but now is not the time for me to do so. Bearing these comments in mind I must reiterate my comments about caveat emptor. Not being a review means there may be spoiler contained – I think Lawton's long since moved beyond a typical suspense novel, but if you want to read him, in particular with his earlier works, as such, maybe you should click the back button now and come back when you've read them. I mean this, little is worse than having the pleasure of speculation stolen away, and I'd hate to diminish your enjoyment of Lawton's work.

This is a crime novel – murders happen, police feature, and Troy is central, but like most of the later Lawtons, the crime isn't at the heart of it. It's much more a novel about time and place and atmosphere, and as such it really works. For those looking for a pacey murder mystery, this is not the book for you, indeed almost 100 pages in and you'll still be searching for the crime or murder that a typical police procedural would concern itself with.

This shift in writing style is something Lawton is clearly aware of, and I particularly liked his self-deprecating denunciation of the 'whodunnit', as Troy says to his father

"Who-dunnits are the lowest form of fiction. Somewhere between whelks and snails." (p.365).

The absence in the majority of the story of much in the way of a common or garden English murder may frustrate one who is explicitly looking for 'traditional' crime fiction. This is a shame and, I think, misses the point. Here crime is not about the usual petty jealousies that lead to death, but about the crime of the century and the attempted extermination of an entire race by Nazi Germany. Contained within this there is also the still open case of the murder of God by rationality and science. This is still a contested issue, as the likes of Richard Dawkins readily shows, but in telling how the early phase of the holocaust stripped away faith while juxtaposing accounts of how numbers were starting to worry at the secret of the universe. As such it buys into the same territory occupied by Ian Rankin's really rather good and often forgotten BBC drama, "Reichenbach Falls", where God is seen as 'dying' sometime during the mid 1800s.

Troy remains a fascinating character. Most notably we see his easy womanising, as he juggles femme fatale Zette Borg and Kitty Stilton (and as such explaining their somewhat sparky relationship in "Riptide"). Yet for all the selfishness, of him clearly stating that he wants a relationship with both women, there's no glamourising of it as a lifestyle. The finality of his interaction with Borg, simply explained as "he never saw her again" is full of pathos, and can't really be called a happy ending.

Most significantly for the series, in the conclusion "Second Violin" talks of Troy in 1975, which comes as a relief. It offers the fact that Troy found life after the bleakness of 1963 and the ambiguous ending of "A Little White Death".

There is a conspicuous absence of closure, the murderer goes unidentified, his motive unexplained, yet this is still an enormously enjoyable book. If you want to get to grips with Lawton and Troy, despite this being the first chronologically of the books, in no circumstances should you start here - it won't make any sense – instead read Lawton like you would Raven's "Alms for Oblivion", jumping around time with pieces of narrative being filled in almost entirely non-sequentially. It doesn't work for everyone, and it may frustrate, but it's very British, and when it works, it's very good.



  1. My pleasure Norm, just wish I had your talent for succinctness!