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Literary Crime Fiction

FRIENDS AND TRAITORS … Between the covers

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After a pause of some years, during which he has introduced the character of Joe Wilderness (Then We Take Berlin, The Unfortunate Englishman) John Lawton re-introduces his most beguiling character, Frederick Troy. Troy is the son of a Russian emigré-turned-newspaper-baron, but he has turned his back on that world (if not its riches and status) to become a London copper. Learning his trade as a bobby on the beat in WWII London, he rises to become one of the top policemen of his generation. His older brother, Sir Rodyon ‘Rod’ Troy has turned to politics, and in this novel he is Shadow Home Secretary in the 1950s Labour Opposition of Hugh Gaitskell.

FATFriends and Traitors focuses mostly on the 1951 defection – and its aftermath – of intelligence officer Guy Burgess, to the Soviet Union. A huge embarrassment to the British government at the time, it was also about personalities, Britain’s place in the New World Order – and its attitudes to homosexuality. Burgess’s usefulness to the Soviets was largely symbolic, but the crux of the story is the events surrounding Burgess’s regrets, and heartfelt wish to come home. Troy interviews him in a Vienna hotel.

“’I want to come home.’
‘Yes,’ said Troy softly. ‘I’d guessed as much.’
‘I miss it all. I miss London. I miss the clubs. I miss the Dog and Duck. I miss the Salisbury. I miss the reform. I miss the RAC. I miss the Gargoyle. I miss that bloke in the pub in Holborn who can fart the national anthem. I miss Tommy Trinder. I miss Max Miller. I miss Billy Cotton. I miss Mantovani. I miss my mother. Oh God, I miss my mother.’”

Troy becomes caught up with what is later revealed to be a plot within a plot – within a subterfuge – within a brutal exercise in double dealing. One thing is for certain, though – the British establishment has no intention of a ‘kiss and make up’ process with Burgess. Rod Troy is summoned to 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who conceals his razor sharp political awareness by pottering about the kitchen in a tatty cardigan, making tea:

“But then, the old man could be amazingly elliptical, subtle to the point of obscurity, to the point where half the nation had willingly misunderstood his ‘never had it so good’ speech. However, there was nothing elliptical about ‘I don’t want Burgess back – at any price.’”

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One of the joys of the Fred Troy novels is the vast repertory company of characters, some fictional and others actual, who appear throughout the series. One such is the beguiling Hungarian musician Méret Voytek, who took centre stage in A Lily of the Field (click the link to read more). Voytek, now a Soviet agent, and Troy are temporarily reunited as part of the subterfuge surrounding Burgess’s attempts to return to Britain.

“He’d not set eyes on Voytek since the day he’d stuck her on the ferry to Calais ten years ago. At twenty-four she’d looked older than her years, her hair prematurely, brazenly white after a year in the hands of the Nazis. Now, she had more flesh on her bones, she had dyed her hair back to its youthful black, no longer wearing white as the badge of her suffering.”

AR-AM348_LAWTON_12S_20160302163714Lawton (right) was born in 1949, so would have only the vaguest memories of growing up in an austere and fragile post-war Britain, but he is a master of describing the contradictions and social stresses of the middle years of the century. Here, he describes Westcott, a notoriously persistent MI5 interrogator, sent to quiz Troy on the events in Vienna:

“His generation had not worn well. A childhood in the over-romanticised Edwardian Age, an adolescence spent wondering if the Great War would last long enough to kill him, and then thrust out into the twenties, into the General Strike and the Depression – the Age of Disappointment – and the thirties, what Auden had called ‘that dirty, double-dealing decade’ – one not designed to leave a man with any memories of heroism, cameradie, or death”

Fred Troy is something of an anti-hero. His attitude towards women would have him outed in the comments section of today’s Guardian, and his approach to moral certainties would, at best, be described as pragmatic. Over the course of the series, he beds many women, but Friends and Traitors has him attached (but not exclusively) to a wholesome lass from Derbyshire, called Shirley Foxx. They go to her home town, to rediscover and reclaim the house where she grew up. In the use of evocative product names, Lawton has found a sharp weapon, and he is not afraid to use it:

“He found her in the bedroom. Childhood spread out across a handknotted rag rug – one large doll, one small lacking its left arm, half a dozen Ladybird books, a dozen Collins classics, a shrivelled bouquet of posies in a faded red ribbon, a bar of soap in the shape of Minnie Mouse …”

While Shirley is trying to exorcise her childhood in order to make sense of her new life, Troy beds another woman but is then called to investigate her murder. Having sorted out her parents’ house, Shirley makes a surprise return to Troy’s London flat in St Martin’s Lane:

“’But it’s done now. The loo works, hot and cold running in a new sink, the house is let and Rosie and Malcolm installed. I am …..home!’ Of course she was. He didn’t think he’d noticed his home in days. He had fallen through a hole in time and space. He had lived with the dead, and could not handle the living woman in front of him.”

To put it simply, Lawton is a writer who transcends genre. His prose is subtle, stylish, pared back to the bone, but translucent, crystal clear. His portrayal of Britain and its place either side of WWII is masterly: he reflects the country’s disappointments, its uncertainties and how it seems to be stumbling, torchless, through a world of darkness quite beyond its comprehension. The Fred Troy novels lack the sequential timeline of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, but in every other sense they are its equal.

Friends and Traitors is available here,
and you can check reading options for the other Fred Troy novels.

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THE SECRETS ON CHICORY LANE …Between the covers

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Shelby Truman is a highly successful romantic novelist tapping out stories involving her heroine Patricia Harlow. After forty two novels, the public shows no sign of losing its appetite for the sultry Patricia and her ability to choose precisely the wrong kind of man for her peace of mind and blood pressure. It’s a grey Chicago morning, and Truman is taking a deep breath and trying type something – anything – which will trigger the latest episode of inflamed passions and yearning bodies, when she receives a piece of registered mail which her assistant, Billy, has just signed for. She is used to convincing her readers that Patricia’s heart has ‘missed a beat’, but now fiction becomes reality.

“The return address at the top of the envelope indicates that the sender is Robert Crane Esq. of Limite, Texas. I know the name. Eddie’s attorney. A twinge of anxiety starts deep in my chest. I’d been trying not to think about Eddie, but that’s impossible this week.

The thing is, I’ve always thought about Eddie. We go way, way back, to when we were children living in Limite.”

Chicory LaneEddie is Eddie Newcott, the boy who used to live across the street in Chicory Lane, Limite. The boy who was just a bit different from all the other kids at school. The kid whose dad was a rough and abusive oilfield mechanic. The kid whose mom turned to the bottle to escape her violent husband and the beatings he handed out to their only child. But that was then. Now sees Eddie fallen on hard times. Times so hard that he achieved brief notoriety in the tabloid press, and has now been sentenced to death by lethal injection for murdering his pregnant girlfriend, slashing her open, dragging the foetus out and then arranging the two corpses on his front lawn, posed in an obscene mockery of a Nativity tableau. And it was Christmas Eve.

“EVIL EDDIE…” …”SATANIST IN GRUESOME RITUAL..” … ‘SUSPECT CLAIMS TO BE THE DEVIL …”

With these headlines dancing before her eyes, Truman reads that all efforts to appeal for clemency on the grounds of insanity have failed, and that Eddie Newcott will die in four days time. As one of his last requests, the condemned man has asked for a visit from Shelby Truman.

What follows is a wonderfully written and heartbreaking account of the bond between Eddie and Shelby. It is as good a coming-of-age novel as I have read for many a year, but Benson’s skill as a storyteller doesn’t stop there. He delivers the poignancy and unbearable sensitivity of first love and sexual awakening. His account of how children escape from the shackles slapped on by their parents is masterly. Sometimes these shackles are forged from too much love, while with other children, the shackles are tempered in the fires of cruelty and hatred. There is also a very clever murder mystery, which isn’t resolved until the last few pages, and then the resolution brings only heartbreak.

I am never entirely sure what a ‘literary novel’ is, but if it consists of elegant writing, a fine ear for dialogue and a gimlet eye for the painful inconsistencies of human behaviour, then The Secrets On Chicory Lane ticks that box too.

RaymondBensonLike Shelby Truman, Raymond Benson (right) is a highly successful writer. He has written thrillers under his own name, most notably his Black Stiletto Saga, and has also written novels based on video games. He has taken up the baton from authors who are no longer with us, like Tom Clancy, and has written several James Bond stories which have either been based on established screenplays – like Die Another Day – or standalone original stories such as The Man With The Red Tattoo.

The Secrets On Chicory Lane is published by Skyhorse Publishing, and is available for pre-order.

BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA … Between the Covers

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The lights of the city are so pretty
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
I’m happy with you
Please let me hear
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Those words of love from you
I walk and walk, swaying
Like a small boat in your arms
I hear your footsteps coming
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Give me one more tender kiss

This 1960s Japanese pop song, banal though it is, provides a chilling soundtrack to this fascinating novel by Nicolás Obregón. The lyrics pepper the narrative, and the very triteness of the song with its synthetic and saccharin sentiments, is in stark contrast to the grim and bloodstained efforts of a discredited and damaged Tokyo detective to bring a brutal killer to justice.

blyInspector Kosuke Iwata’s personal life is as scarred and trauma-ridden as the human tragedies he faces daily as a member of the Homicide division of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department. He was abandoned by his mother in a bus station when he was a child, but has become partly Americanised since she reappeared, now married to a prosperous US citizen, to reclaim him. In the intervening years, Iwata grew up in a Catholic orphanage, and his sleep is frequently disturbed by fretful dreams of those days, with the voices of both his disturbed best friend, as well as the abusive head of the institution, forever whispering in his ear.

Even in adulthood, Iwata has attracted tragedy like a flame attracts winged creatures of the night. His marriage to an American girl ended in horror, when she threw herself off a cliff, clutching their little child. The child perished on the rocks, but the woman survived, after a fashion. She now sits mute in a care home, her body reconstructed, but her mind and soul long since scattered, just as her daughter’s bones were on the jagged rocks at the foot of the cliff.

Iwata has been assigned a murder case which has, albeit briefly, shocked Tokyo. The Kaneshiro family, parents and children have been butchered in their home. The fact that they were of Korean origin, and the much more newsworthy death of Mina Hong, a glamorous celebrity, has consigned the story to the inside pages of the newspapers. Iwata and his assistant, the beautiful but aloof Sakai, discover that the reason they have been given the Kaneshiro case is that the previous investigating officer, Hideo Akashi, inexplicably threw himself to death from a towering Tokyo bridge just weeks earlier.

Iwata is disgusted when the police department announces to the press that it has hunted down the Kaneshiro’s killer – a confused and obsessive young man known to have stalked Mrs Kaneshiro. The fires of Iwata’s suspicions are further stoked when he hears that the so-called killer has died in custody before he could be brought to trial. Now, Iwata is told that he is off the case. Problem solved. Move on, nothing to see here. As fictional detectives usually do, Iwata goes it alone and, after traveling to Hong Kong, he senses that the real killer – who adorns his victims with a mysterious image of a black sun – is within his reach.

He is wrong. Obregón leads Iwata – and us – on an elaborately constructed and beautifully executed wild goose chase. I can’t remember a book where all the apparently random and disconnected threads of the story are finally woven together so cleverly, and with such aplomb. And all the while, the studio kitsch of the song jingles, jangles and jars on our senses as one death leads to another, and deception heaps on deception.

I hear your footsteps coming
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
Give me one more tender kiss
I walk and walk, swaying
Like a small boat in your arms
The scent of your favorite cigarettes
Yokohama, Blue Light Yokohama
This will always be our world 

obregonThis a superb novel and goes way beyond the restraints and conventions of crime fiction. In his afterword, Obregón says of Iwata:

He wouldn’t be wisecracking and he wouldn’t be tough. He would be alone and full of sorrow, fighting the battles of the dead.

Of the novel itself, he adds:

I realised then that Blue Light Yokohama would be a crime novel only in façade. At its heart, I wanted to write about people in pain. About people who had lost something. So it was that Inspector Kosuke Iwata was born.

Blue Light Yokohama is out now, and is published by Michael Joseph. Click the image below to hear the original song.

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