Sometimes an author simply blows your socks off. Back in the 90s, a wander down Chiswick High Road led to a foray into WHSmith where I picked up a novel called Blackout in a 3 for 2 deal. Shortly afterwards, I was back on the High Road, in another store, buying the second novel in the series, Old Flames. I introduced a then friend to the novels who said of Old Flames, ‘I felt I was in the House, seeing Churchill walking down that corridor’. And that comment is key, for I don’t believe any other author I’ve read evokes time, place and culture to the level of Lawton. Back in the 90s, I thought Lawton might be a male ‘Mary Wesley’, writing of his own wartime experiences in old age. I was wrong – he’s considerably younger – making the evocation even more startling and impressive. Along the way, I may have lost touch with the ‘then friend’, but my bond to the ‘Troy’ series of novels remains as strong as ever.
A Lily of the Field is the latest in the series, published by Atlantic Books (for a new Grove Press imprint), a new publisher for the author in the UK. ‘Lily’ is set in the period that Lawton has made his own: during and immediately after WWII. Lily is certainly a novel that can be read alone, but it also draws on the other novels in the series, and their characters, some previously minor. And Lily is, at this stage, perhaps Lawton’s most ambitious and rich novel, calling on various previous strands and curating them into a wider, global picture.
Lawton’s work is difficult to label, with Lily the pinnacle in description challenges. I could tell you this novel is ultimately a copper’s investigation in an environment of espionage, but it defies ‘police procedural’ or ‘espionage thriller’ as a label. I might say it’s ‘literary’, but I prefer inclusive to exclusive in description when it comes to reading, so let me say this: in Lawton and in Lily you will find superb storytelling and much more. Isn’t that the point? For finding beautiful writing and engrossing storytelling, as opposed to navigating those treacherous publisher descriptions and labels is the route to fulfilling reading, is it not?
Lily is a story centred on WWII and its impact on those who survived it, encompassing the incredible human losses along the way. We see the desperately hard exposures to it and the survival tactics of an array of characters from all walks of life, many of whom are dispossessed.
In 1934 in Vienna, Méret Voytek is a ten year old cello-playing child prodigy pupil of Viktor Rosen, a Jewish concert pianist who has found refuge from Germany in the city. Their work together is abruptly halted when Rosen is forced to flee again. Come 1940, an interned Hungarian physicist on the Isle of Man is recruited for the purposes of building the atomic bomb for the Americans. By 1944, Méret finds herself in Auschwitz, saved by sheer luck from immediate death, and playing in the camp orchestra, while also learning the day to day activities to save herself. In 1948 in London, Viktor Rosen tells his comrade and friend that he wishes to relinquish his Communist Party membership.
All these disparate strands collide when a man is found dead on the platform of a busy Camden Town tube station just before the rush hour kicks in. He has been shot, but no one had noticed; he could simply have been considered a beggar at the feet of London’s harassed commuters. Freddie Troy takes on the case: one that proves difficult with very few leads. But behind what appears to be a clear case of murder is a trail of espionage that goes to the root of the balance of power in Europe.
Covering more than a decade and taking us to Vienna, Auschwitz, the Isle of Man, Ontario in Canada, New York, New Mexico and a post-war London, Lily’s breadth and depth in story and prose are also met in the level of reader satisfaction. This is a beautiful book to read and one that will leave lasting memories.
In so few words, Lawton has the ability the give the reader a real sense of character. That sense of time and place is not achieved by mere namechecking of articles and activities of the time, but with a sense of their impact on those who lived then: their perceptions and expectations. Lawton’s prose delivers this with apparent great ease, which belies the meticulous research that must have taken place before the writing. Without doubt, Lawton is a master of what he does and I urge you not to miss this novel or the series.
Lily is available now in the UK. For a signed first edition go to Goldsboro Books and for unsigned you can find the novel at Amazon. For more author information go here. Lawton is at CrimeFest next weekend and will also be making an appearance at Goldsboro Books’ Crime in the Court event on 21 June.
Lawton’s Troy series backlist will be re-issued by Atlantic Books in paperback, starting in July with Blackout.