By John Lawton
Atlantic Monthly. 343 pp. $23
Few novelists have given me more pleasure in recent years than John Lawton with his series about Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard. My favorites are the two novels set during World War II, "Bluffing Mr. Churchill" and "Black Out," which capture the drama and heroism of wartime London, but the novels set later are grand entertainment as well. Over 20-plus years we see Troy advance from sergeant to chief superintendent, confront many challenges from spies, gangsters and politicians, and deal somewhat less successfully with the often ill-chosen women in his life, including one wartime lover, Lady Diana Brack, whom he was forced to shoot dead as she was shooting at him. A policeman's lot is not a happy one.
This policeman's father fled Russia during the revolution, became a London press lord and shortened the family name to Troy. Frederick, the youngest of four, became a cop in part to reject the British class system. His older brother, Rod, became a war hero and then a leader of the Labor Party. Their sisters, the twins Masha and Sasha, were first seen during the war, their husbands overseas, trying hard to keep up the morale of scores of fellows on the home front, and their habits did not improve when peace returned. Troy thinks of them as "one dreadful woman with two bodies."
He is, in fact, a loner, satisfied with his police work, otherwise content at home with a good bottle of wine and the music of Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner and, at times, Buddy Holly. But, poor fellow, the women won't let him be. At the start of this novel, set in 1959, the twenty-something, and aptly named, Shirley Foxx walks out because Troy won't quit the Yard after yet another dreadful wounding. She is replaced by Anna, his doctor and on-and-off lover for a decade. Larissa Tosca, an American Wac who turned out to be a Russian spy, and is still Troy's wife after a wartime marriage of convenience, turns up briefly, but the woman who matters in this book is yet another love from yesteryear, Kitty Stilton.
In 1941, during the Blitz, the young Troy dallied with Kitty, then a policewoman, before she moved on to an American officer named Cal Cormack. She married Cormack and went to Virginia, where he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Now in her late forties, with her husband seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, she comes home for her mother's funeral and stays on for some serious R&R. She spends a few nights with Troy, whose bedroom needs a revolving door, then proceeds to an old flame who has become a successful prizefight promoter. The problem is that he has two younger brothers who are quite lethal mobsters -- we'll get to them. Bighearted Kitty even has a brief fling with a friend of Troy's who wanders in, a half-mad war hero with a tin leg.
Her exploits are matched by others. One of her ex-lovers, a Sinatra-style American singer, in London for a concert, picks up Troy's ex Shirley Foxx, and in the process rejects Masha and Sasha, with whom he'd joined in a threesome on an earlier visit. There's more -- Troy's doctor-lover runs off with Masha's husband, a prominent editor -- but you get the idea. For much of the novel's first half, it's mostly a sex comedy, and a delightful one. Except there is one coupling, between consenting adults, that is shocking -- it shocked Troy, it shocked me, and we are not men who shock easily -- but you will have to read the book to learn the lurid details.
In time, we return to crime. An East End mob boss has gone to prison, and a war of succession has begun. Someone blows up a car with a senior Yard official in it. Someone dismembers two young men. Those mobster brothers of Kitty's lover, who run a trendy nightspot, may be the culprits. Meanwhile, a slippery MP with many dark secrets is trying to get Troy's brother to commit Labor to a major urban renewal project, and the gangsters may be part of the deal. What's more, President Eisenhower, a wartime friend of Rod Troy's, attends a reception at the Troy estate.
In time, Lawton sorts all of this out -- the gangsters, the women, the politicians -- more or less successfully. Here's the novel's wonderful closing line, after one of Troy's lovers has returned to his bed: "The living woman pressed flesh upon his flesh; all the dead ones pinballed full tilt through his mind." The novel's title thus has a double meaning: "flesh wounds," like "love hurts."
"Flesh Wounds" is an odd mix of sex romp and shoot-'em-up, but it worked for me because Lawton writes with such style, intelligence, irreverence, political sophistication and keen understanding of the strengths, weaknesses and glorious eccentricities of his fellow Brits. One unforgettable, entirely outrageous scene follows the death of Sasha's much cuckolded husband, who is thusly described: "Hugh, Umpteenth Viscount Darbishire, was one of a breed that had become much commoner since the war -- the impoverished toff." At the funeral, his dry-eyed widow grows impatient with the vicar's pieties and shouts, "It's time to whizz past the platitudes of received wisdom and lay to rest the man I knew." She proceeds to throw into the grave various of her late husband's possessions, such as his pipe ("So, Hugh, dearest, puff on your pipe, be it in heaven or hell"), a couple of golf balls, "several novels of the Bulldog Drummond variety . . . a copy of Horse and Hound." These items, Troy notes, are "a representative, if far from complete, itinerary of what Sasha hated about Hugh." Finally, the crazed widow produces her husband's wartime revolver ("With this gun my husband single-handedly held off the entire German army at Dunkirk") and, as the mourners flee for their lives, proceeds to . . . but, no, you'll have to read that for yourself. The scene is worthy of Evelyn Waugh. Hell, it's worthy of Shakespeare.