John Lawton. It’s a name most people don’t know, but he’s one of the best, and certainly one of the most underrated, mystery/thriller writers. His series featuring Frederick Troy of the Yard, which stands at seven books, is his great achievement (there’s also another standalone book, set in the US in 1968). It covers ground from the 1930s to 1963, making it not only monumental but also quite audacious in its scope, especially as the books weave in plenty of real-life characters, including Kruschev drinking in a London pub, into the narrative, making for a blend of fact and fiction so expertly concocted that it can be hard to see where the first ends and the second begins.
Over the course of the books, Troy rises from being a policeman in the East end of London to Commander of the Murder Squad at Scotland Yard, a large career arc. He’s also injured countless times and manages to kill more people than any other policeman in England – although it’s not exactly a gunman score. He’s the younger son of a publishing magnate who escaped Russia early in the 20th century carrying a dubiously obtained fortune. So he’s a child of privilege, with an older brother who becomes a Labour MP (and eventual member of the Shadow Cabinet), so he’s also connected politically and socially. But that Russian heritage is an important part of him. It leaves him an outsider to the society of which he’s part, an observer who has no compunction about using his contacts or position but has little regard for the established order of class. He’s a saboteur of sorts, demolishing the structure from within.
The books are also – and this might be why he’s not the huge name he should be – acute observations on the state of England. Lawton is an excellent historian, superb at creating the feel of a time and place (the place being London, although his depiction of Vienna in the late 1930s is also wonderful). He transports the reader there, as any good writer should, but Troy has no time for those who talk of ‘a good war’ and whose only lives exist in the shadow of World War II. The final book in the series, at least chronologically, Little White Death, is set in 1963, just as England is starting to undergo a huge spasm of change in music, fashion and society. And he’s happy to tear it apart, to demolish to old order. At times it’s gleefully cynical, especially as, for much of the book, Troy is very much on the sidelines.
It’s not only Troy himself who’s so well drawn, but also the smaller characters who recur from book to book – his twin sisters, Masha and Sasha, his brother Rob, assistant Jack Wildeve and more. They’re flesh and blood, as are his lovers. Troy isn’t perfect – there’s that very Russian strain of pessimism in him and much self-reflection – but as a character he might be one of the most rounded in fiction. If you haven’t read any in the series, do. You won’t regret the time. I go through them all every couple of years and come away each time amazed at the achievement.