I’ve long been a fan of John Lawton’s Inspector (Superintendent, Chief Super, Commander) Troy series. I re-read the entire canon regularly. They’re historical crime novels set between the 1930s and 1963, with depth resonance, and a convincing blurring of the line between mystery and spy novel. Critics love his work, and the surprise is that the books have never become best sellers. So news of a new Tory novel was definitely exciting, as the last few years have seen him working on a different series with a spy and chancer named Joe Holderness.
Friends and Traitors, though, is every bit as much about the defector Guy Burgess as it is about Troy. They have a small shared history, and it’s Troy who’s in Vienna on a family trip when Burgess appears in a very orchestrated move to declare that he wants to return to Britain. But is it all real, or some ploy by the KGB? Is Burgess being used?
More than anything, this is a book that feels as if it’s bringing together every strand of Troy’s past and present. A few are missing – police mentor George Bonham and doctor/occasional lover Anna Pakenham – but most at least poke their heads around the door. Even Holderness puts in an appearance.
The heart of the book, though, is the conflict of the insider and outsider in society. Burgess, even as a traitor, remains an insider, a man who went to the best schools (Eton and Cambridge), who was part of the elite, something that can never be discarded. Yet Troy, who comes from dubious money – a father who fled Russia with a fortune and became a newspaper proprietor and aristocrat – is also a public school alumnus, with a similar web of connections. The obverse side of the same coin, and still an insider, no matter how much he fights against the idea.
And ideas are central to the novel. Of places in society, breaking out but never away; even Shirley Foxx finds that instead of never being able to go home again, you can never entirely leave the past behind. Of art, and myth, and self-creation, or re-creation. The characters, real and invented, live and breathe the way they do in all Lawton’s work, but there’s curiously little passion at play here, unlike, say, Black Out, which existed on a wave of it. That really only comes closer to the end – at the same time that Troy, chafing under the suspicion of the spooks (again) and the duties of rank, finally gets a murder to investigate – two of them, in fact.
No spoilers, but an end that’s bleakly satisfying. And Tory, as almost always, keeps his emotional distance from everything and everyone.
Friends and Traitors is satisfying in the way that every Lawton book satisfies. The prose goes down like cream, and the characters feel so real you could have a conversation with them. It’s good…and yet, it doesn’t feel like Troy at his best, unless Lawton is deliberately closing the circle. The past weighs too heavily on the present (the ghosts of Troy’s father and Troy’s wife loom in the background), and there’s little sense of any future.
That’s not to say I won’t read it as regularly as the others in the series. He’s that good a writer. I just might not enjoy it quite as much.