………You couldn’t read this and not think that John Lawton has lots of ideas and lots to say. This novel is crammed with plot, sub plot, characters, themes, background and message. And in the end that was the problem with it for me – it felt like he’d thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this novel and then somewhere in the editing process someone had thought “What the hell! Let’s chuck the kitchen sink in too!”
The book is one of a series featuring Detective Troy, very much a maverick with a troubled past (show me a fictional detective who isn’t!!). Troy begins investigating the shooting of an unknown Polish artist, Skolnik, followed by the death of an exceptionally well known musician Viktor Rosen. From there the story slips back and forth in time between Vienna pre-war, the concentration camps and post-war austerity London. In the main it follows the life of a one time musical prodigy, Meret Voytek, now Russian agent, for she is at the heart of the mystery and the possible answers. In the Jewish community of 1930′s Vienna, Meret seems to have everything going for her – she has an almost supernatural talent for the cello, she’s expected to become a musical star, and perhaps most important of all she’s the apple of her fathers eye. She’s tutored and in some respects mentored by Viktor Rosen a family friend and prodigious musical talent himself. But he’s also a man with demons, having suffered at the hands of the Germans previously. And when the Germans annexe Austria on 1938, life is irrevocably and horribly altered. By the time Troy comes across Meret, now a spy in post-war London she is both haunted by her past and puzzled about why the Russian agent Larissa Tosca picked her of all people out of many hundreds on an Auschwitz death march.
Now you’d think that the plot summary above would be one almighty spoiler – far from it. This barely scratches the surface of the complex and intricate story which John Lawton weaves.
Bizarrely, for all that I found this book a little over the top, I still thoroughly enjoyed it! For a start I think Detective Troy is a great character. He’s the son of well-off Russian émigrés so there’s this feeling of him being very ‘British’ and yet not British at all. It allows Lawton to develop the maverick part of Troy’s character in a completely different way to the standard dysfunctional/alcoholic/depressed detectives I read about elsewhere.
The way Lawton captures time and place is also very effective. You do get a real sense of a 1930′s Jewish underclass in Vienna striving to be accepted and mistaking indifference for tolerance. His writing on the horrors and degradations of the Jewish people in the ghetto, and then in the camps, is stark and harrowing. I was struck by how effectively he used seemingly trivial detail to paint this horrific picture. When you read of the sick invention of everyday humiliations, it somehow adds another layer of evil to the scale of the Nazi crimes.
But above all I loved his depiction of post-war London. We might talk today about post-banking-crisis austerity but it’s nothing compared to this. You get a wonderful evocation of a city half-destroyed, sitting shrouded semi-permanently in smog. You get such a strong sense of a London that’s decaying and hungry, trying somehow to get back on its feet. For this alone Lily of the Field is worth a read.
Ultimately though it could have been better. I thought there were really two novels here ( actually there might have been three!). In fairness this didn’t result in it being too difficult to follow – it just left me with the feeling that it was all too much, and for me a case of the sum of the parts actually not being as enjoyable as the parts might have been on their own. John Lawton is clearly a very good writer and I will definitely read him again. Hopefully next time I read a Detective Troy novel someone will have edited it as well as I’d expect John Lawton will craft it!!!