Friday, August 3, 2018

Review of A Little White Death by John Lawton (Grove Press, 2007)

1963. Frederick Troy has risen to be the Chief Detective of CID at Scotland Yard. His brother is shadow Home Secretary. Both move in elevated company and enjoy the legacy wealth and connections of their father’s media empire. And both have ties to brewing scandals as Britain transitions from conservative constraint to the swinging sixties – the unmasking and flight of a Soviet agent and a sex scandal involving, ministers, lords and a KGB agent. Troy, in particular, is neck deep in the trouble having been summoned by his friend, Charlie, to Beirut and following him on to Moscow, and being present at country house parties involving young women and special guests. As the Establishment closes ranks and puts the hedonistic doctor who ran the soirees on trial, Troy finds himself on long-term sick leave. He nonetheless follows the case and gets drawn into part of the conspiracy, and when two key actors are found dead he resumes his old career. The two victims supposedly died by their own hands, but Troy and his colleagues are not convinced, setting out to discover the killer’s identity, even if that means rocking the foundations of the state.

A Little White Death is the third book in the Inspector Troy series. While the first was set in 1944, near the start of Troy’s career, and the second in 1956, this outing takes place in 1963. Despite various career set-backs, Troy has risen to head of CID at Scotland Yard. He’s still as head-strong and reckless as ever, willing to take risks that others would think foolhardy. This includes continuing a friendship with a known Russian spy, even following him to Moscow, and attending retreats organized by a well-connected doctor where ministers, lords, and the head of KGB at the Soviet embassy party with young girls. With echoes of Kim Philby’s defection and the Profumo Affair, Lawton tells the tale of Troy’s entanglements with the various actors and his attempt to battle illness, police politics, and the Establishment to protect those being stitched-up in the aftermath of scandal and discover who murdered two key players. It’s an ambitious, sprawling story with a number of intersecting plot-lines, which Lawton weaves nicely together, and there is nice intertextual references to events and personalities of the time. As ever, his voice is a delight to read and there is plenty of interesting asides, intrigue, and twists and turns. Troy is an interesting lead with a devil-may-care attitude, though his actions when asked to protect his old boss’ granddaughter did feel somewhat out-of-character, and the other actors are well-penned. The tale only works if one suspends disbelief that Troy would be already personally embedded in all the various networks, with the power to pull strings with the Establishment and to lead an investigation he has a conflict of interest in running, but Lawton does a good job of executing those sleights of hand. The result is an engaging, thoughtful read about spies, sex, scandal and suicide in 1960s Britain.

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