John Lawton’s Inspector Troy series constantly surprises.
John Lawton’s Inspector Troy series constantly surprises. A Lily of the Field (Grove Press, £16.99), the seventh novel, has a plot stretching from Austria in 1934 to Wormwood Scrubs in 1949, via Los Alamos and Paris. Fiction rubs shoulders with fact. There are big themes — including the Holocaust, the atomic bomb and Cold War espionage — but they are linked to individual lives, beautifully and economically described.
Meret is a cellist whom we meet as a schoolgirl in prewar Vienna, and her career provides the thread that binds together the various strands of the novel. Like all the characters, she is caught up in a world changing beyond recognition; and, as their world changes, so do they. Loyalty collides with expedience; necessity with idealism. Music is constantly present in one form or another. The Auschwitz orchestra plays Bach’s Third Cello Suite for the cloth-eared commandant. A central European physicist is given a passport in the name of Charlie Parker. Troy himself, no ordinary policeman, moves in and out of the story.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, the grand historical backdrop, the wealth of characters and the numerous locations might have led to disaster. But Lawton writes with authority. His characters convince, and so does their world. Admirable, ambitious and haunting, this is the sort of thriller that defies categorisation. I look forward with enthusiasm to the next one.
Erin Kelly’s first thriller, The Poison Tree, was widely praised, with some reviewers comparing her work to that of Daphne du Maurier. Her second, The Sick Rose (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99), is nearer in spirit to Ruth Rendell’s work. Its main setting is a restoration project reconstructing a Tudor garden in Warwickshire. Louisa, a secretive 39-year-old plantswoman, is overseeing the work. One of the temporary workers, supplied by the owner’s unofficial rehabilitation project, is 18-year-old Paul, who in a few months’ time will be the main prosecution witness when his former best friend is tried for murder. As the relationship between Louisa and Paul develops, the harrowing events of their past lives unfold in parallel flashbacks. Eventually, of course, their two worlds meet in a horrific collision.
It’s an elaborate narrative structure, but Kelly manages it with panache. She writes superbly about adolescents — whether it’s Louisa as a middle-class wild child in London during the late 1980s or Paul growing up on an Essex sink estate. Her protagonists are trapped by the claustrophobic nature of their fears, which distort their thinking and their actions. That said, the ending is too contrived for comfort and Kelly’s adult characters work less well than her teen- agers. Paul seems a remarkably adult 18- year-old, too — the age gap between him and Louisa is often barely noticeable; but perhaps that’s the point. Still, this is an enormously readable novel, and there’s no denying Erin Kelly’s talent. She’s an author to watch.
An Evil Eye (Faber, £14.99) is the fourth novel in Jason Goodwin’s reliably entertaining series set in mid-19th-century Istanbul. The Ottoman empire is in decline but there are plenty of pickings to be had from the decaying superpower. Goodwin’s investigator, Yashim the eunuch, is ideally qualified, both intellectually and physically, for his job. These are troubled times — the old sultan has just died; the new sultan is a teenager; and Russia is exploiting the empire’s weaknesses. A Russian agent is found murdered in a monastery well. And there is a deeper, darker mystery to resolve, whose roots lie in the secretive and lethal world of the sultan’s harem.
The background feels entirely authentic, but Goodwin doesn’t bludgeon the reader with his research. His prose has a light touch — short, snappy sections and a preponderance of simple declarative sentences; he’s the Hemingway of the harem. It has to be admitted, however, that the book isn’t as strong as its predecessors. Both the plot and the cast list would have benefited from pruning and shaping. Less, as they say, is more.
Rising Blood (Cape, £17.99) is the concluding volume of James Fleming’s Charlie Doig triology, which provides an unusual perspective on the Russian Revolution. Doig, a larger-than-life professional naturalist, is half Scottish and half Russian. Bolshevik atrocities have given him a new set of skills and — by the start of this book — 28 tonnes of Lenin’s gold. Pursued by the Red Army, he commandeers a refugee train and sets off for Siberia. Later he goes to Japan and entangles himself in yet another dark and dangerous intrigue. On the last page, Doig’s career reaches what seems to be a resolution — and it’s an unexpectedly poignant one.
Fleming is one of the few thriller writers who can meld plausible period detail with supercharged and frequently brutal adventure. But it’s Doig himself that gives this trilogy its edge: he is satisfyingly complex, with his own almost mystical madness.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.