Second Violin by John Lawton, an enigmatic author who lives on a remote hilltop in Derbyshire, is the first in chronological order of the Troy novels but the sixth he has written.
This novel follows the exploits of the Troy brothers Frederick and Rod, the children of Russian émigré Alexei Troy who now runs a London based newspaper the Sunday Post.
‘I think we can safely conclude that appeasement is dead. This has got to be the point at which Neville stops being a mouse and becomes a man.”
Alex said, ‘Mice don’t shape up , they just get eaten.’
Rod covers Berlin for the Post and travels to Vienna where he witnesses the Nazi atrocity of Kristallnacht and risks his life to help a ‘big eared’ Jewish tailor called Joseph Hummel. Lawton mixes real characters and ‘real history’ with his fictional story and does it with such cleverness that the fictional Rod is expelled from Europe along with the real Hugh Greene, a future director general of the BBC.
Despite everything Joseph Hummel manages to get to London where he obtains lodgings and work with Billy Jacks, a cockney with a typically ‘bolshie’ attitude to life.
Frederick Troy is promoted to Sergeant and along with Walter Stilton, who has a very attractive daughter, and the thoroughly unpleasant Steerforth they work the ‘wop, kraut and kike’ run in order to intern on the Isle of Man all those who are not ‘English’ or ‘English enough’. The irony is that Rod, Harrow, Cambridge and upper class accent was born in Vienna and never became a naturalised subject of the King. Therefore Frederick has to arrest his own brother along with Hummel and Billy Jacks, who was born in Danzig and brought to Stepney at the age of two.
They are transported off to a camp on the Isle of Man where half the brilliant professors, cooks and tailors in England have been interned. As the Blitz on London begins Frederick gets entaangled with two very different beautiful women, and investigates the mysterious deaths of several rabbis.
Troy was short. Below regulation height for a London bobby and only accepted onto the force by waiving of the rules.
Second Violin is an exceptional read, and not only because the short hero gets all the beautiful women, although that helps. The melding of true history with a fictional tale is achieved in a quite masterly fashion and the characters are so sharply drawn and the descriptions so vivid that the reader can see Hummel running through the streets of Vienna chased by SA brownshirts, or Freddie in Judy Jack’s kitchen enjoying her hospitality.
Second Violin met all five of the Crime Scraps criteria [entertainment, education, good plot, stimulating thought and memorable characters] for a good crime fiction novel and in fact even without the crime [the serial killing of the rabbis] it would still have been a fine book. I liked the easy to read style with short snappy chapters and the shifting perspective between the brothers activities.
I loved the humour and above all the truthfulness and lack of sentimentality.
The situation in England was not like Dad’s Army with everyone buckling down to defeat Hitler and many in the late 1930s and the early part of the war would gladly have surrendered and collaborated. John Lawton tells it like it was and I appreciated that honesty.
One thing puzzled me in that John Lawton makes a silly error in the latter part of the book concerning a rabbi and his son, and I wondered if it was deliberate because all the rest of the story is so meticulously researched in order to create the correct atmosphere. Was it a red herring?
Anyway it was not that important and I thoroughly enjoyed the start of the Troy saga and am really looking forward to reading five more in a series that the author calls a ‘social and political history of my time’.
‘Freddie? Have you ever been to a Jewish funeral?’
He’d been to Freud’s, but he didn’t think that counted.
‘No. I’ve been to a couple of ‘brisses’ though. But…….they can’t be that different can they?’
Read more on the Troy books here and here.
Thanks to crimeficreader for supplying the book and nagging me to read John Lawton.