Its publishers compare this Profumo-era romp with Le Carre. They would say that, wouldn't they? Frances Fyfield reports
A Little White Death

by John Lawton

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 16.99

Scandal! England, 1963, is the setting, and the moral implosion of time (a mere 35 years ago) is the theme of this novel. Writing about a time so recent must be difficult, because while the details of that decade may feel entirely fresh - revived as they are, selectively, in fashion and music - living memory plays as false as any other kind, and requires as much research as anything from three centuries ago. It's a bit like explaining the Crusades to a 20-year-old or listening to questions from teens about the same era: "Wot, dad, some MP had sex with a dolly bird? Cool." For anyone over a certain age, there is something acutely atmospheric about this book: the pennies falling in the call box, he ethnic mix of Notting Hill Gate, Rachman, vintage cars, streamlined Minis, the emergence of Carnaby Street.

Lawton takes the uproar around Stephen Ward, Profumo, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies as the basis of his plot, seen through the eyes of Troy, a patrician police commander suffering from tuberculosis. It does not help, the author tells us, to suppose that his parallel characters are based on the real ones (although Tom Driberg and Rebecca West speak their own, minor lines) or that he is attempting to reinterpret history. He is simply using the skeleton of reality to create a fiction of detection and political intrigue in which the ruthless old and new guard of the first fully postwar generation, prove as bad as one another.

The story begins when Troy (who has remarkable freedoms for a policeman) meets his lifelong friend Charlie, a Philby-like double agent who has been handed to Russia. Troy himself has Russian antecedents which, apart from giving him the necessary glamour and distance from his more confused contemporaries, only serves to muddy the plot with an extra strand. He goes on to meet Fitz (the doctor with the role of Stephen Ward), Woodbridge, a Conservative MP and Clover, a divine child of promiscuous tendencies and unfortunate connections. Fitz goes on trial for the procurement of such lovelies for the politicos: enter a bent policeman, a useless judge and, in the wake of two homicides (Fitz included), the first of the hungry press we now know and hate so well ... and some kind of history is made.

Stop here. This is a crime novel/historical thriller, and therefore does not have the same standards as any other novel, right? Wrong. A novel is only a novel. Whatever else it wants to say, whatever atmosphere it wishes to invoke, it must work as a story. So, judged as a decipherable story, this is a downright mess.

Everyone drowns in ambience. People die inconsequentially in this book well before they live on paper. And Lawton is so busy with the epic cast, he forgets the bit player who might tell it all.

The overlay of fact and faction drowns characters, who emerge and then are snatched away. A new piece of the jigsaw is invented because an old one will not fit a shaky narrative, and if the detective-reader in your soul is awake, the culprit entering stage left in the last chapter will merely make you yawn for the sheer convenience of his otherwise anonymous existence. Sure, this was an extraordinary age, but a less ambitious tale might well invoke it better.

Comparisons are odious; and to compare Lawton with Le Carre is not appropriate, even though there is a hint of that same, terrible compassion. The story fails; one character lives. Troy is the observer who wants to engage with life and cannot; the dying man who becomes tragic because of his very detachment, who has no purpose but his own tenacity.

Troy is the reason to buy the book. Not the goddamned story; or anything else to do with where you were in 1963.