A LITTLE WHITE DEATH: JOHN LAWTON

Posted: August 14, 2011 in England, review

1963-In the seventh book chronologically in the series, but the third published book, Troy now Commander of CID at Scotland Yard receives a telegram asking him to go to Beirut to  see his old friend Charlie Leigh-Hunt. Charlie had retired from the Secret Service a few years before  in a flurry of speculation. 

When Troy gets to Beirut he discovers Charlie has defected to Moscow, and he follows him there, where he meets not only Charlie but an attractive Soviet policewoman. On his return to London with a cheque for Charlie’s mother, Troy is invited by Anna, his doctor and sometime lover, to accompany her to a weekend party at Uphill Park, home of Lord Tommy Athelnay, where Patrick Fitzpatrick, the senior partner in her medical practice, rents the south lodge. Among the other people at the party are Woodbridge, Minister at State at the Foreign Office, the blonde Ffitch sisters, Taro and Caro, a teenage girl Clover, part of  the odd harem Fitz keeps at his mews house, and a man called Tony. Troy finds the situation somewhat trying because Anna, seeing him without his clothes realise he is ill, and Tony turns out to be Anton Tereshkov from the Soviet Embassy. Troy is indeed ill he has contracted tuberculosis, on his Moscow trip, and is shunted off to a sanatorium.

Woodbridge statement Mark III. ‘I wish to deny any rumour or allegation of any impropriety between myself and Miss Tara Ffitch or her sister Caroline……..I can only recall two meetings with Mr Tereshkov……I  have accordingly instructed my solicitor to begin proceedings against the Sunday Post for libel.’ ‘Well? said Catesby. ‘He’s damned,’ said Troy. ‘Damned for a tart.’  

When Troy is well enough to return home Fitz is on trial for living off immoral earnings, and when there  are apparently two suicides on the same night Troy begins one of his unofficial  investigations. Of course all the great characters from the rest of the series are involved including the irrepressible pathologist Kolankiewicz.

‘I’m a qualified police surgeon- have been since 1934. Qualified enough to know you look like shit and should be in bed with hot-water bottle and back numbers of the Beano.’  

A Little White Death is loosely based on the Profumo Affair of 1963, which is probably why it is 551 pages long, a lot happened in 1963. But please don’t be put off by the length of the novel because the writing is crystal clear and the complexities of the plot easy to follow. The author states in the historical notes that it is not a roman-a-clef , and it does not help to presume that Woodbridge is Profumo, or Charlie is Kim Philby. And neither is Fitz  Stephen Ward, and Tara, Caro and Clover are not Mandy Rice-Davies or Christine Keeler. But then he would say that wouldn’t he. 

John Lawton weaves into the tapestry of his narrative real characters [Harold Macmillan, Rebecca West, Tom Driberg, Harold Wilson etc] fictional characters, real events, fictional events, and his dialogue and interpretation of those events brilliantly createsthe mood and atmosphere of 1963. It is interesting that a book with a blend of sex, murder, spying, and political intrigue can on refection seem more like a history book recording a moment in time. The blurb on the back cover of my edition states-‘1963. England is about to explode.’ I found it rather disconcerting  to be reading this book over the past traumatic week, but A Little White Death is a wonderful read and a superb picture of a year in the history of England, when we naively believed things were bound to get better.

When asked what were the greatest challenges facing statesmen Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister for most of the year replied- ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’ 

‘Freddie,’ said Coyn, ‘your job’s getting well again. I need you fit. Why not let us get on with our job in the meantime, eh? He patted Troy gently on the upper arm, climbed in the car and drove away. It was as close as men like Coyn came to saying fuck off.   

Here are the Troy novels in chronological order with publication dates in brackets and links to my reviews [mostly on the old blog]. 

Riptide [Bluffing Mr Churchill in the USA] [2001]
Black Out [1995]
Old Flames [1996]
Blue Rondo [Flesh Wounds in the USA] [2005]
A Little White Death [1998]
I do hope this is not the last in the Troy series.
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Comments
  1. My hopes are the same as yours Norm. Do you know that Lawton had a book published called 1963 which chronicled those times?

  2. Norman – A terrific review :-). Isn’t it wonderful when you find a series like this that simply doesn’t disappoint?

  3. I shall try this one. So far I have only read ‘Second Violin’. Have to say, I loved it. Lawton does give you a real sense of the period while every now and again dropping in something totally anachronistic. Sure he does this for the hell of it and not because he doesn’t realise. Love the ‘with hindsight’ comments he has such characters as Winston Churchill make. Also, he has great names for many characters (as with some you have mentioned above). Literally laughed out loud in ‘Second Violin’ when he called a character Maurice Micklewhite.

  4. Norman says:

    Thanks Rhian, I spotted that but at £24, and the feeling that it would just repeat a lot of what I have just read I decided to wait for more Troys.

    Thanks Margot, our Rhian was right about this series when she encouraged me to read it. ;o) The Troy novels do deserve a much greater profile, and hopefully they will all be republished in shiny new editions some time.

    • Ken Mahieu says:

      Thanks for the notes re “1963”. I checked Amazon USA – new is available from one of their partners for $382.77 (why the 77 cents?), and used for $114.95 I too will wait for the reissue.

      Ken

  5. Reissues coming next year I think. Will keep you posted.

  6. Peter says:

    I was speculating hopefully with a fellow Lawton fan about the future of the Troy series. Neither of us could foresee Lawton bringing the series past 1963, but that would not preclude books set earlier.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
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    • Ken Mahieu says:

      Wikipedia has a nice three sentence summary of each book in published order with the story timeline for each.. It appears there are “gaps” in the mid 40’s (45-47) and early 50’s. Hopefully enough for another book or two.

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