London Blitz, spectacular setting for mystery novel
Second Violin by John Lawton
The setting of war-time London, and the Blitz in particular, is one that still fascinates writers and readers. No matter how many have written about this time and place there is yet another novel to be discovered. Second Violin by John Lawton is an early Inspector Troy thriller – he is in fact Sergeant Troy in this novel, and it is some time before he enters this story.
By John Lawton
We begin with Frederick Troy’s older brother Rod, a journalist, in Vienna covering the story of the German occupation, and the rounding up of the Jews in that city full of citizens that just let it all happen. Gone are Shkolnik’s Kosher Butcher, there for five generations, and Kostiner café, there for three generations, Linsky, the draper, there for four generations, and Hummel only one of the countless tailors establishments – some of their names still visible, carved into the facades of buildings along the Graben.
Rod crosses paths in Vienna with Hugh Green and a German named Stahl, men who are important characters in this novel and who will re-appear in a later John Lawton novel, Bluffing Mr. Churchill.
Then we are back in England, with the Troy family, Alex the father, the newspaper baron and the other son, Freddy the policeman. They are aristocracy, Russian, mixing with the politicians and movers and shakers of the day. We see the endemic anti-Semitism within the British aristocracy and political parties. We hear about the Mass Observation, a brilliant British idea to have their citizens “observe” their neighbours and report on any and every activity – meant to show up traitors but leaving us with an amazing record of life in war time England.
Then the round up of aliens – those without a British passport – first the Category C Aliens, the Germans, Austrians, Italians without a British passport. The bistro owners and workers are arrested, and all of a sudden every decent place to eat in London has no staff. Then the tailors of Stepney, the East End of London, some of them recently escaped from Vienna. And Rod Troy, born in Vienna as the family made their way through Europe to England. Rod had been running around Nazi occupied Europe on a Nansen passport, the invention of a Norwegian explorer, to provide identity papers to the stateless after World War One. All rounded up now, transported to a camp, in Rod’s case on the Isle of Man. For some, who had escaped camps in Europe, this was seen as the end – to have escaped to “safety” in England to meet the same fate? Of course, it was not, but they were not to know that. On the Isle of Man the houses on seaside streets were cordoned off by barbed wire, windows were painted black and they became the barracks housing these “aliens”. There was good coffee, good pastries, and a string quartet – Rod Troy became the second violin, Viktor Rosen presided. We will learn the whole story of Viktor Rosen in a more recent John Lawton’s book A Lily of the Field.
Then the murders begin. Not on the Isle of Man, but in London, a rabbi is found dead. Freddy Troy investigates – and attends a funeral like no other he has seen, this one “austere, not a wreath or a bunch of flowers in sight, it was heart rending, it was spare, it was moving”. Jews don’t dress up death, the reciting of the Kaddish is enough.
Then the blitz – the German planes flying up the Thames toward London – 375 – a swarm – the docks of London bombed and burning. Freddy Troy leaves a lover in his bed and watches from his rooftop. Then another murder – does it really matter, one dead man among so many hundreds killed in the blitz? To Freddy, it does matter, and the investigation continues.
I have not read the John Lawton books in the order in which they were written and published – this one comes early, but I read it after all of the others. Although the books do not need to be read in any order a few of the characters outside of the Troy family do re-appear and it was such a pleasure to re-encounter them in an earlier time in Second Violin.