A Lily of the Field by John Lawton

Enigmas to cherish from the fogbound Cold War world

Roz Kaveney
Friday 03 June 2011 00:00 BST

One of the best ways to write about the matter of Englishness is to see it through the eyes of someone both inside and outside. John Lawton's Frederick Troy is an outsider both because he comes from a Russian emigré family and because he is a detective – and an insider, both because his investigations teach him how British society ticks, and because he so passionately wants the commitment of Englishness. Lawton's Troy books are less detective stories or intelligence thrillers than novels which include both murders and spies – novels as much about how people and societies grow and change as about the complex messes that Troy finds himself tidying up for his adopted country.

For some books now, Lawton has gone back and forth in the Second World War and Cold War time-line he has established, in order to deepen our understanding of Troy's story, and the story of the people around him. His invention is such that there is always more for us to know, and more questions answered than we knew from the earlier books to ask coherently. A Lily of the Field establishes a lot more about just why the British intelligence world regards Troy as a dangerous maverick who does what he thinks is right rather than what is expedient. One of the excellences of Lawton's work is that we are always left somewhat uncertain as to whether Troy's wilful ways are entirely a good thing.

Inevitably, the series's habit of doubling back on itself means that there are some nuances which will not occur to someone who picks up one of the later books as their first excursion into Lawton's fog-gloomed world. In A Lily of the Field, for example, the brilliant young cellist Meret Voytek is rescued from the Auschwitz death march by Russian intelligence officer Larissa Tosca, and recruited as an agent. Lawton plays fair with the reader and mentions Tosca as an American servicewoman with whom Troy had an affair during the Blitz, and whom he believes – at this point – to be dead. But the new reader would have to be really paying attention to link the two mentions. More experienced readers, on the other hand, will relish seeing Tosca from someone else's point of view.

A Lily of the Field is partly the story of Voytek's career as prisoner, musician and spy, and partly that of the physicist Szabo - whom the British intern, and who helps build the atomic bomb. It is also the story of how Troy investigates Skolnik, a mediocre Polish artist and barfly, shot in the back with a gun that is a work of art, and the death of eminent pianist Victor: his and Voytek's teacher and his friend. The novel fills in many gaps in the story of Troy's relationship with an unhappily but faithfully married doctor, Anna. Above all, it is a vivid picture of London in the Age of Austerity, with bad food, bad air and bad breath.

Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes! Capes and crusaders in comics and films' is published by IB Tauris

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