Friday, February 26, 2010

Review of Old Flames by John Lawton (Orion, 1996)

1956 and Khrushchev is on a state visit to the Britain. Given his fluent Russian, Chief Inspector Troy is drafted into the special branch team to mind the Soviet President. During the visit a lone frogman is spotted trying to spy on the Russian battleship berthed in Portsmouth Harbour and a couple of weeks later a body is washed up, although his face and hands are in such poor condition he can’t be identified. Troy sets out to investigate who the frogman is, why he was spying on the ship, and why he was killed, despite warnings to stay away from the case. Soon he is caught in a web of intrigue, his life under-threat, with those that can help him being murdered as soon as he tracks them down. But Troy is a tenacious copper and he isn’t going to be stopped until he discovers the truth.

As I posted a couple of days ago, Lawton is a skilled writer and storyteller. His prose is easy on the eye, evocative, and hooks the reader in early and tugs them along. As a cold war thriller/crime novel, Old Flames works well. The characterisation is good and there is a strong sense of place and history. Where I have a difficulty as a reader is in respect to plausibility. The historical detail, the kinds of relationships between individuals and agencies, the political intrigue, and basics of the plot are all fine in this regard. Rather it is the many coincidences between characters that I find hard to buy. Every character is already known in some capacity to other characters, or has some tangible relationship to them. I noted a number of these in the previous post, but they continue all the way to the end of the novel, with even minor characters linked to Troy or others (for example, the bank at which one of the characters has an account just happens to be managed by a close school friend of Troy's who then provides him access, despite the fact that the character lives in a completely different town and there are hundreds of banks in the city). The story really didn’t need this level of interweaving and coincidence, and in many ways it works best when Troy is in territory where there are no such relationships. It’s not that I am against coincidence, but rather excessive coincidence. The story is also a little too long, padded out with some sidebars that could have been trimmed back. That said, I did enjoy Old Flames and will keep an eye out for other books by John Lawton.