The Dead Of Winter, by Rennie Airth and Second Violin, by John Lawton
The popularity of the Second World War detective genre shows no signs of abating and here are two recent examples of series covering similar ground – albeit with differing degrees of success.
With The Dead Of Winter, Rennie Airth’s trilogy covering the exploits of Inspector John Madden has reached London in 1944. The series has followed Madden from his entry into the CID as a returning WW1 veteran, through successes in the Twenties and Thirties but come the opening of The Dead Of Winter and Madden has retired from the force to run a Surrey farm. As this is a detective novel, he is soon brought back into the life when a Polish land girl working on his farm is murdered on a day trip to London.
What follows is a race against time to stop the murderer who is, it quickly turns out, a professional assassin on a murderous search across war torn London for diamonds brought to London by fleeing Polish Jews. So far so good, but in practise what could be a taut and atmospheric turns out to be a bit of an identikit thriller.
The problem is Airth does not seem to be a natural storyteller. He rarely shows action directly; instead the story unfolds via a series of expositions, clumsy two-headed conversations between characters retelling what has already happened off screen. The Dead of Winter is about plot above all else – I can picture a complicated wall chart outlining the story’s various threads – but without adding in characters, atmosphere and without anything new to say about the times, there is little in The Dead Of Winter to linger in the memory. The result is a curiously flat and unengaging novel that works neither as an airport page turner nor a historical crime novel.
If Rennie Airth’s book is point-less then perhaps Second Violin, John Lawton’s latest entry into his superb Frederick Troy series suffers from a surfeit of point. Lawton’s Troy novels trace the detecting and espionage career of the black sheep son of a newspaper magnate, from his days as a newly minted detective in the East End during the Blitz, through various Cold War escapades.
As the youngest son of a wealthy family of Russian exiles and the recipient of a privileged English upper class upbringing he’s an English gentleman who isn’t accepted as an English gentleman. As a newly minted CID detective, he’s also a policeman who isn’t accepted as a policeman. The conflict Troy faces from his family, the force and from the criminals he faces are wonderfully drawn. These books are as good as anything by more celebrated (and it has to be said more successful) authors such as CJ Sansom and Phillip Kerr and are all well worth seeking out.
In Second Violin, Lawton returns to the early days of Troy’s career in a story set against the run up to the onset of war. This is a novel about chaos and the reasonable and unreasonable paranoia it induces. In March 1938 Troy’s brother Rodyon is a journalist in Vienna as the Nazis take control. Later Rodyon is in Berlin covering Kristallnacht watching people flee for their lives before being ejected by the regime. In 1940 Sgt Frederick Troy is in charge of rounding up ‘enemy aliens’ prior to their internment in various camps around the country. One is his brother Rodyon, who having been born in Austria, is sent to the Isle of Man along with others we have previously encountered in Vienna and Berlin.
In this climate of fear, what is different about Britain in comparison to similar state sponsored corralling by the Germans? For both Troy brothers, what does it mean to be British or to want to be British? Meanwhile, in order to maintain the illusion this is a crime novel, someone is murdering East End rabbis under cover of the Blitz. Troy is on hand to find the culprit as paranoia grips.
Lawton’s skill in using the genre to pull together his theme of a world on the brink of huge social change via strands of political scandal, sexual intrigue and murder, is all here. Some of the parallels to today are a bit cack-handed – is there really a line to be drawn from internment to Guantanamo – but in general Lawton is developing along with the series. As a result, this is big, satisfying, engaging stuff.
If Second Violin is not the best of the series then it is surely the most ambitious. Genre straddling and genre transcending, Lawton’s Frederick Troy series is a mighty achievement.