Second Violin

by John Lawton

To describe this book simply is to say that it is about the two sons of influential Russian emigre newspaper publisher Sir Alexis Troy, raised in an upper class British household, educated at Oxbridge, who find themselves in dramatically different circumstances as World War II and the London Blitz begin.
But John Lawton’s story telling is anything but simple.
While this book is part war story, part historical fiction and part mystery, it is mostly a portrait of a particular time and place in history.
Lawton brings characters into the spotlight, introduces them to each other in passing, moves them to the sidelines, brings other characters into the spotlight and then brings back previously introduced characters. Characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the book without necessarily having a role that drives the plot.
Rod, the eldest, is covering Kristallnacht in Vienna for the Berlin bureau of his father’s newspaper when he intervenes to protect a Jewish tailor being chased by a gang of anti-Semites. The Nazis deport Rod back to Britain.
His brother Frederick, who prefers to simply be called Troy, bucks the family tradition of entering a profession and becomes a policeman. He’s just been promoted from East London beat cop to a Scotland Yard murder detective.
As the war with Germany threatens, the British government issues orders that all German and Eastern European-born men are to be interned in camps. That includes Rod, who was born in Vienna and never took the time to become a naturalized citizen of Great Britain. Troy is temporarily reassigned to an East End round-up squad.
While Troy rounds up men who will eventually be interned with his brother on the Isle of Man, he’s asked to look into what appears to be a hit-and-run accident that killed an East End rabbi. He quickly realizes it was murder. The more he investigates, the more he realizes that it wasn’t the first, nor is it the last murder of a rabbi.
Lawton is a master of juxtaposition, paradox and irony. His description of Rod’s experiences as an internee is worth the price of the book. A member of the British upper class, complete with old school tie, he’s now rubbing elbows with Cockney tailors who’ve lived in London’s East End since their infancy; a world renowned pianist; the Nazi policeman who escorted him on Kristallnacht; the tailor he helped save that night; and wary German, Polish and Austrian intellectuals who well understand what a “camp” might mean.
Troy becomes involved with two sexually voracious women: one is the daughter of his supervisor on the round-up squad; the other is one of the dead rabbis’ daughter, who has not only rejected her father’s religion, she has become a renowned physicist with a taste for risky sex.
On the edges of this story are psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Winston Churchill and assorted members of Parliament who are avowed anti-semites and fascists.
Ultimately, in the middle of a German air raid, Troy and the rabbi’s daughter, put an end to the East End murders, but Lawton never reveals who the killer is. By that time, I’d lost my patience in trying to infer who it was. As a mystery, SECOND VIOLIN is disappointing.
That loose end is typical of much of this book. Reading SECOND VIOLIN is like watching a large aquarium: different creatures drift back and forth across your field of vision, then you walk away leaving that world to flow on its own.
The sequels to SECOND VIOLIN (2007), in story order, are (the publication date is in parenthesis):
  • BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL / RIPTIDE (2001). This story takes place in the early days of World War II. The Americans, not yet in the war, have sent Calvin Cormack to London to find an agent from Germany and bring him in for debriefing. He is paired with MI5 officer Walter Stilton. Stilton’s daughter is Frederick’s former girlfriend, Kitty. She becomes involved with Calvin. When her father is killed, Cal joins Troy in investigating a trail of murders and why the agent won’t come in.
  • BLACK OUT (1995). This book begins in the final stage of the London Blitz in 1944. Sgt. Troy is assigned to find out who’s murdering German scientists who have been smuggled out of Germany and into Britain. He tracks a suspect to Berlin in 1948, tangling with British and American spy agencies, a Russian spy and a British femme fatale.
  • A LILY OF THE FIELD (2010). This novel combines two linked stories: “Audacity” is set in 1934-46 Europe and barely mentions Frederick Troy; “Austerity,” is set in London in 1948 and features an Inspector Troy murder investigation that spills into Cold War espionage.
  • OLD FLAMES (1996). Chief Inspector Troy, because he speaks Russian, has been assigned to guard Russian Secretary-General Nikita Krushchev during his 1956 visit to Britain. At the same time, Troy investigates the death of an ex-navy diver during a curiously botched spy mission.
  • FRIENDS AND TRAITORS (2017). In 1958, Troy has been promoted to chief superintendent in recognition of his good service during Krushchev’s visit. He is visiting Europe to celebrate his elder brother’s birthday. After a concert in Vienna, he is approached by an old friend he hasn’t seen in years: Guy Burgess, a Soviet spy who tells Frederick he wants to come home. Frederick turns the matter over to MI5. Before their agent can debrief Burgess, he is gunned down yards from the embassy. Frederick finds himself a suspect and must fight to prove his innocence.
  • BLUE RONDO / FLESH WOUNDS (2005). This book opens at almost the same time as BLACK OUT and then skips 10 years to pick up the lives of characters who were just children in BLACK OUT. In 1959, two have grown up to be East End gangsters edging into the West End. One has become a policeman working with Chief Superintendent Frederick Troy.
  • A LITTLE WHITE DEATH (1998). Based on the historical events of the Profumo affair and the Kim Philby spy scandal of he early 1960s, Troy, now a Commander, discovers that an apparent suicide of a fictional, Stephen Ward-like character was murder. Then a second apparent suicide complicates matters. Most of the historical characters are replaced by fictional ones. As the story unfolds, Lawton paints a background of “swinging London.”

About the Author: John Lawton (1949 – )

John Lawton is known for his historical, crime and spy novels set primarily in Britain during World War II and the Cold War.

Lawton worked in London publishing before becoming a documentary television producer at Channel 4 in the mid-1980s. During the 1990s, he alternated between writing novels and working in television in England.

His 2001 book, known in England as RIPTIDE and in the United States as BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL, has been bought by Columbia Pictures. The other Frederick Troy novels have also been optioned but so far none has made it to either film or television.

For the past two decades, he has stayed away from the limelight and moved between England, the United States and Italy.

In 2008, he was named in the Daily Telegraph as one of “50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die.” In 2010, his novel, A LILY OF THE FIELD, was named in the New York Times Review’s “Pick of the Year.”

In addition to the Frederick Troy series, Lawson has written a series featuring Joe Wilderness; several stand alone novels, including SWEET SUNDAY, featuring a New York private eye in 1969; and the nonfiction book, 1963 FIVE HUNDRED DAYS: HISTORY AS MELODRAMA (1992).


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