Review of "A Lily of the Field," a thriller by John Lawton

(Courtesy Of Atlantic Monthly Press - Courtesy Of Atlantic Monthly Press)
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By Gerald Bartell
Monday, October 25, 2010


By John Lawton

Atlantic Monthly. 381 pp. $24

If the previous seven installments in John Lawton's Inspector Troy series haven't made the point adequately, the eighth, "A Lily of the Field," makes it again, and solidly: Lawton's thrillers provide a vivid, moving and wonderfully absorbing way to experience life in London and on the Continent before, during and after World War II.

At the core of this case is a murder that summons Troy from Scotland Yard to London's Northern Line Underground, where someone shot and killed a man on a platform. Delectable clues -- lumps of gray mashed potatoes, a ruby attached to a tiny Fabergé pistol -- come straight from the Agatha Christie playbook, as does the crisply written investigation that follows.

But like its predecessors, "A Lily of the Field" offers far more than a clever, intricate, golden age mystery puzzle. In fact, Troy's investigation of the Underground murder doesn't take center stage until the book nears midpoint. The book's first half follows the suspenseful narratives of a gallery of characters the reader comes to care about greatly as they face the oncoming war.

Among them are Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist at Heaven's Gate Internment Camp on the Isle of Man; Viktor Rosen, who teaches piano and cello in Vienna; and Méret Voytek, one of his students.

Méret is arguably the most arresting figure of all, especially since her responses to the rise and fall of the Nazis become the book's sobering theme. A headstrong teenage prodigy, she joins the Vienna Youth Orchestra. Even after the Nazis overtake Vienna and Jewish members of the orchestra begin to disappear, Méret, who is not a Jew, responds to what is happening as "something seen reflected in a shop window." Then the Nazis shatter that shop window. They snatch her from a streetcar because she was sitting beside a friend who had been fighting the SS. With other prisoners, she endures a harrowing train journey and then the horrors of Auschwitz.

By this point, Lawton has the reader in his grips, wondering how he'll fuse the disparate plot strands, which also include Szabo's journey to New Mexico to work on the atomic bomb, and connect them to the shooting on the Underground. It's greatly satisfying, then, to follow along as Lawton ties everything together with expert timing, breathtaking revelations and one quick, perfectly judged, genuinely frightening action scene that punctuates the ending.

But even more than Lawton's storytelling skill, it's his gray-toned vision of postwar London that unifies the work. In the city on the Thames in 1948, whatever joy greeted the end of the conflict has dissipated, and whether the suffering and sacrifice have led to a better world is a disturbing question. Rather than relying on spoils, Londoners scrape by on rations. The fear of Germany's V-2 rockets has been replaced by a far greater threat, the Soviet Union's atomic bomb. In the air hangs smog from "the foul mixture of swirling Thames mist and a couple of million belching coal fires." Under this miasma, the characters stand bewildered.

Troy's brother Roderick searches for meaning behind the tragic, war-related loss that ends the story: "I want something redeeming in this," he says. The inspector, who has seen too much, finds nothing to reply. It's left to Ruby, a prostitute who works outside Troy's flat, to suggest that beauty can survive in this bleak, postwar landscape: "I can be . . . like what they used to tell us in Sunday school," she writes Troy, "like one of them lilies in a field what Jesus used to talk about."

Throughout, Lawton underscores his tale with music. Méret and a string orchestra play at Auschwitz as Nazis send prisoners to the furnaces. In New Mexico, the boom from an exploding atomic bomb bounces "off the mountains in an endless repetitive echo . . . as rhythmical as the beating of some red Indian drum." And in London, Méret and Viktor give a concert that leads Troy to the solution of the case.

Together, these notes, chords and rhythms transform "A Lily of the Field" into a haunting symphony in a minor key.

Bartell is an arts and travel writer who lives in Manhattan.

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