Friday, January 15, 2010

Police and thieves

Confinement must give one lots of time to think and observe, or so I am told, and I bet John Lawton would agree.

His 2007 novel Second Violin puts co-protagonist Rod Troy in one of Winston Churchill's internment camps for internal aliens. There, Lawton offers the funniest and most moving portrait of national character I have read in any crime novel.

A Little White Death, published nine years earlier, has Rod's brother Frederick, Scotland Yard's chief detective, in a sanitarium recuperating from tuberculosis. Troy knows he will hate his confinement, yet two of his fellow inmates — a sharp-tongued workingman and an old general — are both more than they seem and vehicles for Lawton to poke and probe English class structure.

Why do you think Lawton set the scenes where he did? What makes confined settings attractive to a writer?
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A Little White Death takes place in 1963, just before "The Sixties" hit Britain with full force. The characters, of course, have nothing more than ominous presentiments, but we — and Lawton — know everything: Carnaby Street, sexual openness, the reaction against sexual openness, the rapid commodification of personality, police brutality and more.

Lawton finds several ways to foreshadow this — retrospective foreshadowing, one might call it — most effectively in understated accounts of police brutality and in references to police lying. In the latter cases especially, we readers are clearly meant to reflect bitterly that 1963 England could still be shocked at such a possibility. More on this interesting subject, perhaps, later.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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14 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Claustrophobic confined settings with their limited number of suspects are ideal for a crime fiction writer. They are also typically English, Agatha Christie used them and PD James still does.

Second Violin is a brilliant book and i am looking forward to reading the A Little White Death as I remember those events very well. Anyone who thinks the English class system disappeared in the war has never spoken to their parents who lived through those events.

January 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That thought had crossed my mind, and I'd be interested to see what P.D. James does with confined settings.

Lawton does something different, though. In neither Second Violin nor A Little White Death is the protagonist interned with suspects. Rather, the scenes are something like the play within the play in Hamlet or even the stranding on the island in The Tempest (Lord forgive me fot these lofty citations!) Life behind bars is a distilled, even didactic version of life on the outside. Lawton uses the interludes to say something about England's class structure.

Elsewhere in A Little White Death, Lawton makes it clear that the class system persisted at least through 1963. Mostly he does this through characters who had to fight against the system to get where they are.

I wonder if he'll continue the series beyond the early and mid-1960s. He's published six books in the Troy series; perhaps he'll situate the eighth in 1978 and call it Anarchy in the UK.

January 16, 2010  
Blogger Philip said...

I wonder, Peter, if perhaps a particularly good literary analogue of the scenario in the Lawton books, particularly A Little White Death, is to be found in David Storey's play, Home. Storey was much influenced by Beckett at that time, and the entire proceedings certainly are absurd, but the key point is perhaps that they seem not at all absurd -- simply everyday banalities in the conversation of the two male characters in particular -- until you realize that the five characters are inmates in a lunatic asylum and the two men are just another two Englishmen dancing to the music of class, whether hereditary or socio-economic. Everything the characters utter is delusional, but you'd have no reason to think so if you were eavesdropping on them down the pub.

When I was fourteen, I spent rather a long time in the London Hospital for Diseases of the Chest, as it was still then called, a place built in the 1860s and perched on the edge of Victoria Park in Bethnal Green, the heart of the East End. Because of its nature, the Hospital had an astonishing range of patients demographically, lacking only the wealthiest able to pay for what were often very long stays in private hospitals providing very specialised care, and I was aware of then, even at that age, and can recall now this dancing that went on among three types: those pretending to be what they were not, those rudely and determinedly themselves and intent upon demonstrating it, and those hell bent upon stirring the pot, often by taunting those in the first group. The point is, I suspect, that the English have a great need to create microcosms of what they suppose to be society at large in confined situations, starting with class, though that is increasingly and economic issue at bottom. Of course, the absurdity of the situation in the London Chest Hospital, as it's now called, is that it had a very high mortality rate -- both kings and pawns went in the same box at the end of the day.

Home, by the way, is available on DVD in the production with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

January 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Two actors such as those might well be worth watching.

This bit of your description:

"this dancing that went on among three types: those pretending to be what they were not, those rudely and determinedly themselves and intent upon demonstrating it, and those hell bent upon stirring the pot, often by taunting those in the first group."

is very much what Lawton was up to in Second Violin and, even more so, in A Little White Death, I think. You'll remember, if you've read the latter book, that Freddie Troy could easily afford a private hospital but refuses because to do so would endanger Rod's credibility as a rising Labour Party star. A public institution, but far from teeming London, is a compromise.

The dancing to which you refer also evokes thoughts of Anthony Powell.

January 16, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I think the ne plus ultra of confined settings is probably Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel Rogue Male(filmed by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt in 1941). The central character, who has just taken a pop at Hitler, flees from the Nazis and buries himself in a hole in the English countryside. In said hole is where most of the action takes place. Very well done up to a point but does fall apart a bit towards the end.

I'm about half way through Lawton's Blue Rondo at the moment. Very entertaining but I'm not sure it could be classed as a crime novel. The personal and the historical rather swamp any crime element. From what I've read so far Troy might just as well be an obstetrician or a stockbroker as a detective. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. It does have one of the better funeral scenes in fiction, though.

It's funny you mentioned Anthony Powell. Reading Lawton reminded me very much of Powell, although I'd be hard pressed to say where exactly the similarities were.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's hard to imagine much action taking place in a hole, especially in a movie, but I have faith in Fritz Lang.

John Lawton has said that he resists being markered as a crime novelist (though he likes and admires the work of a number o crime writers), and I can see why. The two of his novels that I've read are much more social histories than they are detective stories. Freddie Troy does not appear until page 124 of "Second Violin," for example. The detection element is more prominent in "A Little White Death," but that book is still more about social change and its effects on the people who go through it than it is about a crime.

I read the first novel in "A Dance to the Music of Time" because I wanted to see what Bill James was so excited about. If the series of books chronicles social change through the lives of its characters, there's one resemblance to Lawton's Troy novels.

January 18, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I don't know if you're familiar with the site of John Frazer, but he reckons Household was Britain's best thriller writer (not an assessment I would agree with myself). The Lang movie wasn't bad but like a lot of movies it didn't have a lot to do with the book it was based on.

From what I've read, the second half of Blue Rondo will be more crime (or Kray) related. I can understand Lawton's reluctance to be marketed as a crime novelist. I think he's too talented to be confined to one genre but making his central character a copper might be a mistake. He's in danger of falling between two stools

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know that site or Geoffrey Household. Thanks.

You could be right about the danger to Lawton. "A Little White Death" makes effective use of crime-story elements, especially in the courtroom scenes and the little bits of background about the cops' histories. But here, too, he's writing a story in which police (and a judge) play a part rather than a police story. The man is talented and, more than that, ambitious.

January 18, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Sorry, Peter, that should have been Fraser (an S rather than a Z).
A very good site, although getting a little outdated now:

http://www.jottings.ca/john/thriller_pref.html

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. The preface seems familiar. I may, in fact, have come across the site before.

January 18, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

From Lawton's author page at www.groveatlantic.com (I think this interview is nearly a year old):

"I'm close to the end of A LILY OF THE FIELD. Set in the years 1934-48, Vienna, Poland and London, but mostly 1948 and London. It's been very time-consuming. There's been a lot of travel to get to grips with it, and I've never really written about musicians before. I must be unnerving a few cellists, sitting in the front row at the Wigmore Hall, taking notes. I'll do the same at Carnegie Hall if I get the chance. But it will be finished before the end of the year."

Peter, if you and other readers have finished A Little White Death you will, I think, find it unlikely that there will be a sequel. At the same page, Lawton says he intended the first 3 Troys as a trilogy (this is why I don't discourage readers from reading the books in order of publication rather than in chronological order).

He also says: "I may never write about the 60s after 1963, and I couldn't write about the 70s as I was looking the other way when they happened."

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I slap myself in the forehead for not having consulted Lawton's author page in this matter.

It appears that he'll be following up on some of the fascination with music and musicians that he displayed in "A Little White Death." I'm not sure man writers have come to grips with jazz, rock and roll and now, apparently, classical music as Lawton does. He sets himself quite a challenge.

I'm not shocked to learn that he's unlikely to write about the 1960s again. Troy does retire at the end of "A Little White Death," though he is young enough to make a plausible return. But that book is full of pre-apocalyptic apprehension. It might be difficult to take the story further.

January 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

“What makes confined settings attractive to a writer?” Perhaps the ability to more tightly control, manipulate the narrative and/or plot. Cornell Woolrich was a master of this. I imagine most readers are familiar with his “Rear Window” through the Hitchcock film.

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, very good. Rear Window makes especially creative use of confined space or, as self-serious film critics are wont to say, it's a meditation on the nature of voyeurism -- and it's better than Woolrich's story.

January 19, 2010  

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