It's a crime! (Or a mystery…)

Second Violin – John Lawton

SecondviolinJohn Lawton has asserted that he has “always resisted being marketed as a crime writer”; he considers that he writes about “the social and political history of my own time”. This is true; his novels are multi-layered, each creating a tapestry to savour and enjoy, densely packed with beautiful and easy to read prose. However, usually, but not exclusively with Freddie Troy the policeman as the protagonist, it would be all too easy to succumb to temptation and beckon the Troy series to fall into the genre of crime fiction.

Where many would love to stick that “crime fiction” label on Lawton’s Troy novels, Second Violin presents the least opportunity in the series. Here, Lawton’s writing reflecting social and political history also appears to be delivered in a more impassioned way on this occasion, with an underlying provocative prompt for us to take stock and revisit our thoughts on contemporary life and politics. Where Second Violin takes place as WWII erupts across Europe, Lawton asks in his Historical Note section, at the back of the novel “Why this topic now?” Then he tells us why. “Well, I think we have lived these last few years in a world dominated by a man to whom the rest of the world, other than those from his own green acres in Texas, are just ‘kikes and niggers’. A man who cannot even pronounce the name ‘Iraq’. If you will substitute ‘towelhead’ or ‘ayrab’ for kike and nigger … it doesn’t alter the concept one jot.”

Lawton is right to suggest the West looks into a mirror and reflects, prompting some navel gazing; it’s time to reflect on what our values are and a revisit to WWII, in a fictional capacity draws out thoughts we may have preferred to suppress. But, let’s get back to the novel now…

To say that Second Violin is the UK in the run up to WWII is a misnomer; it’s a tale that crosses boundaries and takes us across Europe giving us a flavour of the impact on innocent people, those who became displaced, and the dispossessed, with the novel mainly following those who were lucky to have their lives. Lawton takes us to London, Berlin and Vienna, the latter at the time of Kristallnacht. He follows those who manage to save themselves, by all they can muster, as they head west, crossing borders to perceived safety. (“Safety” in the UK may have led to their eventual internment, but Lawton provides an interesting insight on this – it’s not always bad and it’s certainly creative. Those who find themselves interned on the Isle of Man manage to work a bakery, sculpt with unusual materials and create an orchestra with a key character in this novel playing second violin within it – hence the appropriate and fond title for the novel.)

This isn’t really a Freddie Troy novel either, it’s a full on “family Troy” novel. The patriarch of the émigré Troy clan, Alex (Alexei) Troy is in his last years, still the Editor of his national newspaper, ever the “cranky” author of its editorial, ever the one to determine which “letters to the editor” are published. When not dining in his dressing gown at home, as his twin daughters ride roughshod with their rudeness over guests, he’s also cavorting with Churchill and Freud elsewhere. Alex is well-connected, to say the least; but he also travels to an impasse with Churchill. And never the twain shall meet thereafter…

Elder son, Rod Troy is now married with children and also loving the thrill of working as a roving reporter for the family paper, The Post. He deliberately seeks out Berlin and Vienna; deliberately seeks to stay as long as he can, much to his father’s chagrin and worry. Rod is there on the night of Kristallnacht in Vienna, not hiding from it, but doing what he can in the tragic scheme of things, as a displaced journalist with contacts.

Kristallnacht is often considered as the turning point assault on the Jews in Germany, alone. But here, Lawton focuses on what happened in Vienna. The writing is intense and evocative. The tension immense.

Freddie Troy makes a late appearance in the novel, when it comes to story, plot and the focus on this character. Earlier in the novel, the “errant” younger son meets his father over breakfast, then accompanies him on a trip to Monte Carlo where he enjoys a night at a casino. Nothing wasted there. No Troy can have an illicit liaison without the surety of having to revisit the liaison/the woman later. This is true for Freddie in Monte Carlo. He is taught more than how to play the game by a woman in a black suit, who returns to his life later during the war. Still a novice in his own mind, he is taught more about the pleasures of physical love when he becomes involved with the daughter of a colleague – Kitty Stilton – later and when war on English soil has finally erupted in the form of the lit up night skies and the Blitz.

In this novel, Troy’s eyes are opened to the feel of emergency and immediate need during the war, when visiting Hyde Park with one of his lovers (and yes, this novel is the start of Freddie’s sexual life and a taste of things to come in his later life, as relayed in earlier novels): “Fer Gawd’s sake, fuck ‘er mate. If you don’t, I bleedin’ well will. Maybe then she’ll shut ‘er great clangin’ gob”.

But let’s get back to Freddie’s plod too. After dealing with internment issues, he finally has a case of a series of East London Rabbis being murdered – or so it seems. If there is an element of crime fiction in this novel, then this is it. But to explore that is a disservice to the novel and to the author of this wonderful novel. It would be like commenting on one grape in a bunch.

This is not, more than any other novel that has gone before in this series, a novel that you could shake the “crime fiction stick at” and hope it stuck. Lovely as it might be to try to welcome Lawton, with open arms, into the crime genre through Black Out, Old Flames, A Little White Death and the others in the series, Second Violin is even more different and is well travelled away from that potential.

As in his previous novels, Lawton adds real historical characters to his fictional characters in the story, with a fictional segue that slips in unnoticed (as usual).  Here, we have Freud, Churchill, Oswald Mosley and his black shirt cohorts, and a selection of Nazis, all made real in fiction.

It’s an emotional novel, often inspiring sadness, sometimes frustration and anger, but neither is the humour missing: revisit the Isle of Man internment scenes to experience this, as well as Freddie Troy’s expanding love life…

This is the UK preparing for war, even if it did know it yet. This is the UK struggling to do the right thing when faced with war. This is the UK trying to make sense of war, when it finally hits home. This is all of that experience through the eyes of the fictional Troy family.

This is a great story and a great salutation to the times it reflects. As a work of fiction, it’s also a great tale. How else, these days, can we learn of the introduction to war; the potential for oversights and lack of preparation?

This is a novel not to be missed. It will certainly be sought out if readers want to be both entertained and educated. And it’s also a class act in writing that only a few could follow…

It also achieves the author’s objective in his notes in asking “Why now?” What is in the story within this novel should prompt us to hold up a mirror to ourselves. It is time to revisit our automatic thoughts and ask “Why?”

But above all that; this is a fine novel, displaying the author’s acute ability to observe and record the intricacies of human nature in action, especially when the human is cornered or is supported by the egotistical feel of power developing. It also has a driving plot where the tensions across Europe seek release. All characters are real, be they fictional or actual real living persons at the time; all have a credibility that relates to that period of history.

Second Violin is not a story that in any way relates to classic crime fiction, but it’s a remarkable novel that deserves a wide audience. It’s also a delicious reading experience; something to savour and not to rush.

I pursued that during my summer break and I loved every moment of the novel.  Really, this is a novel for which you choose to take your time.  Then came my own navel gazing and challenge to my existing thoughts.

Where Second Violin is an exceedingly entertaining read; it’s also a wonderful, unsuspected “bite on the backside” to make you think.

Ignore this novel at your own peril!


3 comments on “Second Violin – John Lawton

  1. Peter
    November 6, 2008

    Interesting that Lawton is playing the “Don’t call this `crime fiction'” game with “Second Violin,” since he’s giving a reading from the novel in New York next week at a bookstore called Partners and Crime.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. crimeficreader
    November 7, 2008

    Lawton has been published and promoted as “literary” in the UK, although I think he may have been slotted into the “mystery” genre in the US.
    I think he has preferred the literary label, but in recent years the crime fiction community in the UK has adopted him and he’s responded kindly with some festival appearances.
    Personally, I think his novels are more on the literary side than pure crime fiction or thriller, even if the novels may involve policing and espionage. They are historical commentary on the time in question, acutely observed and related through fiction.
    I have loved these novels from the first I read in the mid 90s and I look forward to the next and will take time out to read it. You could call it an “engrossing pleasure” of mine.
    Lawton delivers beautiful prose, a mass of eccentric characters and wonderful plotting.
    I don’t ask for more as I am so satisfied with Lawton’s writing. Second on that list of brilliance in writing is Robert Wilson and I am so pleased to see he has another novel due in March 09, with The Ignorance of Blood, a further episode in the life of Javier Falcon.
    Both are class acts, but Lawton gets my top vote every time.

  3. Peter
    November 12, 2008

    Based on your recommendation and Norm’s, I have bought “Second Violin,” which I am about halfway through. I also have just returned from hearing John Lawton read from it and from the Troy novel he’s writing now. He had some interesting things to say considering his resistance (more like resignation, I’d say) to being marketed as a crime writer.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

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This entry was posted on September 6, 2007 by in Books.