Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review of Black Out by John Lawton, Phoenix (1995)

London 1944, the tail end of the Blitz, and a human arm is discovered by children on a bomb site. The arm has been severed from its owner by a knife. The case is assigned to Detective Sergeant Troy, son of a Russian émigré turned newspaper magnate, and the rising star of the murder squad based in Scotland Yard. Troy soon establishes that Peter Wolinski, a Polish communist and intellectual, is missing from his apartment and starts a manhunt, only the victim appears to be German and there is no record as to his identity. Soon Troy is drawn into the world of wartime intelligence and is caught between two femme fatales – Tosca, a feisty New Yorker working for American High Command and Lady Diana Brack, the elegant lover of a shady American operative. Stonewalled by the intelligence services, when Troy refuses to give up the chase he becomes the hunted.

Black Out is one of a series of Troy novels that have been published out of chronological order. It’s the first one I’ve read and there was no sense that I needed to have read any of the others as the book stands alone. I found the first 100 pages or so a little frustrating. The story kind of ambled along and exploited a set of coincidences that I found very convenient and unlikely. For example (and revealing these will not spoil the read) – Wolinski, the man who disappears, lives in the apartment above Troy’s former mentor; Troy’s uncle, a university professor, also knows Wolinski; the woman who visits Wolinski’s apartment exits as Troy revisits his mentor; she is known to him as a family friend; Troy’s trusted constable also knows the woman as his brothers lust after her; the liaison between MI5 and the police attended the same school as Troy at the same time and is known to him; when Troy visits a RAF base he bumps into an old rival of his father. This is a big city, full of millions of people, and yet conveniently half a dozen principle characters are already known to each other and coincide in time and space. Perhaps one, maybe two, coincidences would have been realistic. But seven? And they were the ones I jotted down. In addition, Troy has remarkable luck – for example he’s the only survivor of a bomb explosion.

I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t as the story really picks up and the tension starts to mount and I ended up really enjoying the book. And there are some great twists towards the end. There was actually no need for these coincidences and the book would have worked equally well if the characters had been strangers. The characterisation is good throughout and I thought Kolankiewicz, the foulmouthed pathologist (‘fuck bloody off bastardpimpcopper’; ‘what the bollox you want, smartyarse’), and Tosca, the feisty New Yorker, were great creations. Lawton captures the atmosphere of black out London and the story eventually evolves into a convoluted and gripping tale.

Overall, despite a frustrating start, Black Out really grew on me, the latter half more than making up for the first, and I’ll keep an eye out for other Troy novels.

Thanks to Uriah Robinson at Crime Scraps for the recommendation. Another review can be found at It's a Crime


crimeficreader said...

The fact you gave it your 5 stars overall just shows how much it overcame your frustration. I love this book and this series, probably my favourite of all time, to date.

Rob Kitchin said...

Not quite a five star review, but I did end up enjoying it and I'll be tracking down the other books at some point.

Maxine Clarke said...

This book was in my holiday pile (has long been on the shelf owing to recommendation from CFR and, since buying it, Norman). Unfortunately it did not make it into the suitcase owing to space/weight reasons (I maxed out at 14 books) so it is still on the pile. I have to say, though, I bought this particular title on the assumption that it is the first of the series so will double-check that before I start - as I am somewhat nerdish about reading series in order (apart from translated crime when all you can do is read randomly as they translate them, sob).

Rob Kitchin said...

My understanding is that this was the first book published (1995) and it is set in 1944. Some of the books written subsequently relate to pre 1944, some post 44. So you can either read them by date published or by year they relate to. I hope I've got that right.

cfr said...

Rob, I really should remember to ALWAYS have my glasses on when at the PC. It's no longer just a reading requirement but a close work requirement.