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Tuesday 7 March 2023

BLACK OUT - Book review

John Lawton’s highly accomplished debut novel was published in 1995, the first of eight detective Troy books. It's a mix of crime in the main plus espionage elements. Sergeant Frederick Troy doesn't like any form of his given name, preferring to be addressed by his surname. He is the younger son of a Russian immigrant father who has become a wealthy newspaper publisher and baronet. Defying class and family expectations, the independently wealthy Troy joins Scotland Yard, becoming an investigator on the ‘murder squad’. 

The book begins at the height of the London Blitz, February 1944, when a dog is spotted carrying the severed arm of a man. Before long, Troy is assigned to find out who's murdering German scientists who've been secretly smuggled out of Germany and into Britain. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence regarding the murders and the upper echelons of the American forces. The newly formed OSS is involved, it appears. The convoluted investigation has its compensations for Troy, however, in the erotic form of not one but two femmes fatales – socialite Diana Brock and US Army sergeant Tosca.

The story skips to 1948, when Troy tracks a suspect to Berlin during the Blockade, which provides a fine twist.

Throughout, the characters are well defined and interesting, from the Inspector Onions, to the Polish pathologist Kolakiewicz, the dissolute MI5 man, Pym, the voluptuous Diana and the amusingly voluble and voracious Tosca, to Troy himself. The sense of time and place are expertly evoked.

There is wit and sly humour as well as a little graphic sex. For example, an amusing scene where Troy’s Uncle Nikolai, who works at Imperial College, has a dud bomb stowed in his lab. ‘It fell in Islington churchyard last night. Believe me, it’s as safe as houses.’ That particular metaphor did nothing to reassure Troy. So many houses in Islingon these days were nothing more than rubble and dust’ (p78).

‘Pym was running rapidly to seed and looked as though he meant to enjoy every moment and ounce of it. Somewhere in his attic was a portrait that was forever young’ (p93).

And we have suspense, also: ‘She smiled and took the page from him, and he knew as certain as eggs were powdered that there was someone hiding in the next room’ (p113).

A pleasure to read.

The second Troy book, Old Flames, takes place in 1956 during Khrushchev’s visit to UK. Subsequent books skip about in time, some before the events in Black Out.

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