It’s a rare writer who can turn the inevitable into gripping drama. This is a special challenge for spy novelists whose work centers on World War II or the Cold War. After all, we know how World War II ended. We know (or we think we know) who won the Cold War. The greatest espionage novelists — John le Carré, Eric Ambler, Alan Furst and a handful of others — find new drama in the shadowy, private battles that rage in the hearts and minds of spies themselves.
John Lawton’s Frederick Troy novels fit somewhat uneasily into this category. Troy of Scotland Yard is not a spy so much as a cop who finds himself enmeshed in espionage plots with alarming frequency. That Troy’s father is an émigré from a prominent Russian family adds a convenient — and utterly convincing — personal connection to many of the Cold War-related plots of the Troy novels.
“Friends and Traitors” is Lawton’s latest entry in the series, and one of the best. Part murder mystery, part spy tale, the book has a streak of wonderfully dark humor throughout. The winding, cleverly constructed plot focuses, in large part, on Troy’s relationship (strained, but cordial) with Guy Burgess, the real-life British spy who fled England for the Soviet Union in the 1950s. In Troy’s capable hands, Burgess comes across as a charismatic, booze-soaked wastrel, something of a privileged brat, and a man openly and even defiantly gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in England.
Many of the photos that survive of Burgess, taken when he was in England and later when he was living in Russia, depict a smug creep with a cigarette forever stuck in the corner of his mouth. Among Lawton’s many accomplishments is to bring that creep to life — and make the reader (reluctantly) like him, even if we never quite admire him.
In fact, the Burgess of “Friends and Traitors” is compelling enough that he threatens to eclipse Troy himself — no mean feat, as Lawton’s cynical, tenacious chief superintendent of Scotland Yard is one of crime fiction’s superlative creations. Like so many of the best literary cops and private eyes, from Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer and V.I. Warshawski to Georges Simenon’s Maigret, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and more, Troy is a rebel with his own moral code.
What makes him so appealing as a character is that he’s forever challenging that internal compass. He screws up. He breaks his own rules. He’s not so much larger than life as he is fully, believably alive, with flaws to match his formidable strengths as a detective.
The story line of “Friends and Traitors” is rather convoluted, which will come as no surprise to readers of previous books in the series. It boils down to this: Years after Burgess fled England for Moscow, he confronts Troy at a concert in Vienna, where Troy is on a grand tour of the Continent with his brother and other family members.
Burgess tells the incredulous superintendent that he wants to come home. Troy alerts his intelligence counterparts in MI5, who dutifully send an agent to gauge Burgess’s sincerity and look into the prospect of repatriating such a high-profile traitor.
When the MI5 agent is murdered, Troy emerges as a suspect. (This makes perfect sense, by the way, especially in light of Troy’s dealings, and sexual liaisons, with Russian spies in the past.) The search for the real killer ensues — as many of Troy’s old flames, old mistakes and old family schisms flood back into his life.
Lawton’s writing here is as sharp as ever: “Backstage in a theater always reminded Troy of being ‘backstage’ in a police station. All pretence vanished. The art of illusion ceased at the frontier. No more red, no more gold, no more velvet. . . . The walls were always two tones of faecal misery in high glass, divided by a black line.”
For those who have not read Lawton’s previous books, there is a bit of a learning curve. Expect to meet characters who obviously belong in Troy’s world — even if it’s not clear, at first, why they belong, or where they fit in. Still, in the end, “Friends and Traitors” is more than a genre novel. It is a wickedly seductive entertainment and more proof, if anyone needed it, that John Lawton is creating some of our finest, and some of our most enjoyably ambiguous historical fiction.
Benedict Cosgrove is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.
By John Lawton
Atlantic Monthly. 337 pp. $26