OLD FLAMES

By John Lawton

Atlantic Monthly. 416 pp. $24

John Lawton has written three novels about Scotland Yard's Frederick Troy; "Old Flames" is the second of them and the first to be published in this country, despite reviews in London that have compared Lawton to John le Carre. The comparison is not far-fetched, although I might add Alan Furst and C.P. Snow to the list. In short, this is the overdue arrival on our shores of a world-class talent, and if you yearn for stylish, sophisticated, suspenseful fiction, you need look no further.

Nikita Khrushchev paid England a visit in April 1956, and Lawton starts his story with a real-life episode in which a Royal Navy frogman apparently spied on Khrushchev's cruiser in Portsmouth Harbor only to wind up dead. In the novel, Chief Inspector Troy is assigned to help guard Khrushchev and, because he speaks excellent Russian, to spy on him. Arriving early in Portsmouth, Troy shares a table at breakfast with a boorish salesman who later proves to be the ill-fated frogman. Troy proceeds to hit it off with Khrushchev and one night spirits the Russian leader away from the diplomats to down a few pints in a working-class East London pub -- a fictional tour de force that provides a vivid portrait of a Khrushchev who is just as belligerent as you thought but also smarter and more charming.

After the frogman's badly decomposed body washes up, Troy is called upon to investigate. Beyond the question of the man's identity is the more elusive question of whose agent he was. Did Anthony Eden's Tory government authorize the spy mission? Was it a rogue operation carried out by British intelligence? Or a Russian scheme to embarrass the clueless Brits? Troy discovers that the frogman had a secret life that featured a gorgeous young mistress and huge amounts of cash. As Troy investigates, people close to the spy keep being killed, raising the possibility that elements of British intelligence, for which Troy and his colleagues at Scotland Yard have vast contempt, are trying desperately to cover up their guilt.

The plot is a tantalizing one, based as it is on a long-forgotten incident that was never fully explained, but the richness of "Old Flames" far exceeds the tale of the frogman. For one thing, there is the excellence of Lawton's writing, as he digresses on everything from London architecture to pig farming to the music of Thelonious Monk, all of which Troy dearly loves. Moreover, his older brother Rod is a leader of the Labor Party and up to his ears in political intrigue. As the frogman mystery unfolds, Rod Troy is far more concerned with the coming of the Suez Crisis, which he correctly predicts will bring down Eden's government. From time to time, Lawton puts the thriller plot on hold as Rod talks politics:

"He's quite right, of course, Eden is barking. I've thought so for a while now. Absolutely barking bloody mad. There's talk he won't last the term. I've bet Nye Bevan a tenner Macmillan will lead the Tories into the next election." These frequent political digressions call to mind C.P. Snow's explorations of England's shadowy corridors of power.

Frederick and Rod Troy are the sons of a Russian named Troitsky, who fled his native land before the revolution and in England changed his name and bought a London newspaper. The father insisted that his sons be educated like proper Englishmen, but they remain outsiders despite their success. Their circle of friends includes several old schoolmates who have grown up to be drunken aristocrats, and one of whom may be the rumored "third man" in the Burgess-Maclean spy scandal. The family background is detailed in "Black Out," Lawton's first novel on Inspector Troy, which is set in and just after World War II. It was then that Troy fell in love with Larissa Tosca, a streetwise Italian American WAC he thought was killed in 1948, but she reappears in this novel as a KGB agent running for her life from her Soviet masters. Troy hurries to Amsterdam to rescue her and marries her in order to bring her safely into England. It is not the happiest -- or, indeed, the most plausible -- of marriages, but we must await a later novel to learn just where Larissa's true loyalties lie.

My only complaint about this uncommonly smart and engrossing novel is that, thanks to the inanities of the publishing business, it arrived before "Black Out." However, the publisher says a paperback edition of the earlier novel is also being issued here this month. In a more perfect world, we would read the first novel first. But, however you proceed, you should try them both, because the intrepid Inspector Troy is a memorable creation and John Lawton is an exciting new voice in popular fiction.