One of today's top historical espionage writers, considered "as good as le Carr�" (Chicago Tribune) and "a master" (Rocky Mountain News), John Lawton adds another spellbinding thriller to his Inspector Troy series with Second Violin. The sixth installment in the series, Lawton's novel opens in 1938 with Europe on the brink of war. In London, Frederick Troy, newly promoted to the prestigious Murder Squad at Scotland Yard, is put in charge of rounding up a list of German and Italian "enemy aliens" that also includes Frederick's brother, Rod, who learns upon receiving an internment letter that despite having grown up in England he is Austrian-born. Hundreds of men are herded by train to a neglected camp on the Isle of Man. And, as the bombs start falling on London, a murdered rabbi is found, then another, and another. Amidst great war, murder is what matters. Moving from the Nazi-infested alleys of pre-war Vienna to the bombed out streets of 1940 London, and featuring an extraordinary cast of characters, Lawton's latest brings to life war-torn London. In this uncommon thriller, John Lawton delivers a suspenseful and intelligent novel, as a good a spy story as it is an historical narrative.
Lawton's engrossing sixth entry but the first chronologically in his Inspector Troy thriller series (Black Out, etc.) chronicles the major events leading up to WWII--Germany's annexation of Austria, Chamberlain's peace efforts, Kristallnacht--while providing a disturbing picture of anti-Semitism and class frictions in England at the time. As part of Scotland Yard's murder squad, Insp. Frederick Troy investigates a series of slayings of London rabbis, but various subplots equally intrigue, notably one that unfolds in an internment camp for Germans, Jews and foreigners--including Troy's Austrian-born brother, Rod--rounded up after Britain's entry into the war. At one point, Troy and a lady friend discover the "aphrodisia of war" in Hyde Park, a spot popular with couples for copulation during the blitz. Lawton does a fine job of incorporating such lesser known period details into his saga, though some readers may find he relies too often on deus ex machina for their taste. (Nov.)
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October 31, 2008
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Excerpt from Second Violin by John Lawton
Troy wandered. He could see why his dad had warned him of the danger of 'awe', it would be easy and it would be a misperception. The casino made Versailles and Les Trianons look understated - tempting as it might be awe did not strike. This was the lurid fantasy of a king layered with the even more lurid fantasies of commerce. It might look like a royal palace, but it was also, Troy felt, tacky. Tacky and unreal. As unreal as a film set. As unreal as the sets of the silent epics of his childhood, like Ben-Hur and dozens of others that had never lodged in his memory. It came almost as a surprise to pass through the doors and not find the struts and props that supported the papier-maché facade. Inside it was overblown, grandiose to the hilt - too many columns, too much onyx, too much stained glass - and too many characters who looked like leftovers from Central Casting.
He watched roulette for a while. Indeed, gambling for the first time struck him as a spectator sport - as many people watching as playing. And he concluded his father was right. No skill was required and none possible. All the same, the looks of concentration and calculation on the face of the players showed that they believed in some sort of system. A large woman, wearing a small fortune in diamonds - Troy's immediate mnemonic for her was Mrs van Hopper from Rebecca - repeatedly bet the same number and repeatedly lost. And no doubt she thought of it as her lucky number.
Troy moved on to chemin-de-fer. The game his dad had recommended. The old man had said 'it's like that English game you appear to have learnt furtively in your schooldays in some act of adolescent rebellion behind the bike sheds'. 'What,' Troy had replied, 'Conkers?' 'No,' said his father, 'Pontoon ... vingt-et-un, pay twenty-one ... whatever.' Only when Troy sat down at a chemin-de-fer table in one of the casino's inner rooms did he realise it wasn't exactly like pontoon, and that, really, he hadn't a clue what he was doing. And that now, people were watching him.
The shoe was in the hands of an Englishman of about Troy's own age. Unlike Troy he seemed completely at his ease, drawing on a distinctive custom-made cigarette with three gold rings, gumetal case and lighter set out like props on the table, staring back at his opponents with unflinching self-confidence, a lock of unruly hair curling over one eye like a comma - he looked to Troy like a raffish version of Hoagy Carmichael, an effect at once dispelled by the cruel twist of his lips as he mocked Troy openly for putting down a Jack and an Ace in the fond illusion that he had won.
"Learn the rules, old man," he said. "We're not playing for ha'pennies in a London pub. Face cards don't count."
With that he passed the shoe, scooped up his winnings, tossed a hefty chip to the croupier and left. Troy was tempted to follow, give up and go to bed early with a good book. He'd still got most of the money his dad had given him - that alone would buy dinner for two. Just as he put a hand on the table to lever himself up, there was swish of silk and the chair the Englishman had vacated was taken by a woman. It was the same woman he had seen on the train, the simple black suit replaced by and equally simple, but rather daring black dress, and the hair that had been so neatly tucked up into a pillbox hat now bouncing off her shoulders in thick black ringlets. She was a study in monochrome. A fantasy in black and white. And she was talking to him. Softly, leaning in to keep her words private.
"What a snob! Don't judge the English by him. We're not all Lord Muck, you know."
"I am English," Troy replied, and before he could explain further, the table was betting again. He wasn't even sure she had heard him.
"Five is the sticky point," she whispered. "Simple maths really. Everything comes down to numbers in the end. You're aiming for nine. Five and four make nine. Double figures, say sixteen, only count the last digit so really you've only got six, which is not much better than five. And what Snobby forgot to tell you is tens don't count either."
Troy watched a painfully thin, deeply-lined old man - so many old Englishmen seemed to end up looking like Ernest Thesiger in The Bride of Frankenstein - lose twice, and then heard the woman say "Banco. My friend will play."
The young Arab - more Charles Boyer than Valentino - holding the shoe dealt two cards. The croupier scooped them up on his giant fish slice and set them in front of Troy. Then the banker dealt himself two, face up - an Ace and a seven. More than enough to stick at. Troy looked at his own hand - the ten of clubs, the five of hearts. Five was what he had, all he had, if the woman's method of calculation was correct.
"I always ask for another card at five," she whispered. "Because the bank will usually do the same. You're simply evenning up the odds."
"The bank already has eight," Troy said.
"Just play," she said.
The banker was looking at Troy. A hint of impatience. Troy hesitated. The banker had won twice in a row. The pot had tripled to two million francs. He had enough to cover the bet and no more. And he needed the maximum to win. Lose this and dinner would be brown bread and dripping.
"Remember," she said. "You bet the two million when you said banco."
"I didn't say banco. You did."
"You have, trust me, absolutely nothing to lose."
"Suivi," Troy said.
The banker slipped a card out of the shoe and turned it face up.
Four of diamonds. Troy hoped he wasn't smirking. More than that he hoped the woman, whoever she was, had got the rules right. One more put-down and he'd feel obliged to leave the table.
"Huit à la banque. Neuf seulement," the croupier said.
Troy turned over his first two cards.
"Well done, M'sieur," said the banker. "I can only wish the same muse would whisper in my ear."
Troy had now amassed in the region of four million. Almost, as he felt, inadvertently.
The woman spoke softly to him, less a whisper now than a confidence.
"Often as not the banker would pass the shoe now, but he can still play another round - if he has the funds that is."
The Banker spoke directly to her.
"Will Madame be playing? The seats are really meant for players not guardian angels."
She smiled at him, a smile that would have disarmed the Mongol Horde, and tipped her purse out on the table.
"Quite," she said. "I think our apprentice is au fait with the game now. Please, deal me in."
Then she spoke to Troy again, "Made quite a killing on the roulette wheel. Only came in with the price of a packet of crisps."
So much, he thought, for the mug's game.
The Arab lost with good grace. After the woman took another six million from him, he kissed her hand, thanked her for the pleasure of the game, passed the shoe to the monocled Frenchman on his left - a Gallic Sydney Greenstreet as Troy saw him - and quit the table.
"I think we should follow, don't you," she said to Troy. "I don't believe in luck, and I don't believe in pushing it either."
Coming up the steps to caisse they encountered the Englishman who had been so rude to them - casually tapping another cigarette against the gunmetal case, with all the sang froid that Troy never seemed to be able to muster.
"If I'd known we had lady luck at the table, I'd've stayed for the second house," he said, slighty sibilant on his s's - 'shecond houshe' -all but leering at the woman, utterly ignoring Troy.
"Bastard," she said, kicked him on the shin, and left him hopping on one leg.
"Bastard," she said. "I know his sort. Sort of man who thinks you're just waiting to be tumbled into bed."
Out on the front steps, beyond the papier-maché façade once more. A large wad of notes in his pocket, a larger one in her handbag.
She said, "Where are you staying?"
"At the Paris, just across the square."
"Me too. But of course ... I'm sharing a room."
"I'm not. I have a suite to myself."
"That settles it then, doesn't it?"
Crossing the square, she said, "Did you notice the waxworks?"
"All those people who looked like characters from the old silent films. As though the place preserved them and rolled them out on special occasions."
"Yes. I noticed. What do you think the special occasion is?"
She slipped an arm through his. It was a small but startling gesture. It should not have been. She had taken possession nearly an hour ago. He looked. She was his height. The same black hair, the same dark eyes. A looking glass.
"Oh ..." she replied. "I think we're both about to find out. Now, did you spot Fatty Arbuckle?"
"I thought he was Sydney Greenstreet?"
"Oh no ... far too modern, and besides you never see Sydney Greenstreet without Peter Lorre."