Friday, July 13, 2012

John Lawton

I'm no surer now than when I first read one of John Lawton's Troy novels how Lawton wound up being labelled a crime writer. He reminds me more of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell or P.G. Wodehouse than of any detective, thriller, or crime author I can come up with off the top of my head.

Lawton's fiction is comedy, social history, acute, amused (and sometimes angry) commentary on English life in, depending on the book, the 1930's, '40s, '50s, or '60s, and the Troy novels are the books I'd recommend first to a literate, intelligent person who asked, "What's England?"

Currently on my reading docket are Lawton's Flesh Wounds (published as Blue Rondo in the U.K.), set in 1959, and the story "East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road," in Otto Penzler's Agents of Treachery collection.

Here's Lawton's Web site.   And here are posts about Lawton and history, Lawton and English identity, and Lawton and Wodehouse.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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15 Comments:

Blogger Philip Amos said...

I've been as ardent a devotee of Lawton's book as you'll find since I first came across one in the library. No small part of my delight in them came from the fact that I'm a Londoner in origin and an historian (now putatively retired, though few of we academics really retire). I wrote in an earlier comment that certain of Lawton's books were very much romans a clef, all to some degree, and there was much enjoyment to be had in spotting the historical figures in disguise -- if you knew the history of the period. So too, much humour in passing references, including, I recall, one to Wodehouse.

And so, I too was uncertain as to how the books came to be designated crime fiction in some contexts, but I do believe I've more often seen them described as 'spy novels', and that did baffle me, for I don't read works in that genre. I think much of this confusion has to do with the utterly woeful ignorance inherent in public library cataloguing today. The widely-used system employed here has Lawton divided between crime fiction and general fiction.

It is in the latter it belongs, and I think your parallels with Waugh, Powell and Wodehouse very apt. In Waugh, satire of aspects of English society and much in the way of the roman a clef. In Powell, no satire, but a studied depiction of a part of English society -- he was a champion snob and rarely strays out of the upper classes. And in Wodehouse, satire of the same classes to which Powell was so devoted and, of course, hilarity throughout. Adding Lawton, all four are different one from another, but it is, I think, in the differences that one finds the parallels.

A fine post, Peter, for I think you raise a signifcant point and a pregnant one: Are there other 'crime writers' similarly miscatalogued.

July 13, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Postscript. I'm straying from the particular to the general here, I know, but I really should have finished my last sentence with 'or vice versa'. I am constantly dumbfounded by books on the back cover of which the publisher -- Penguin is a notable example -- has printed 'Crime Fiction' or 'Mystery Fiction', or even put one of those cretinous 'If you like Agatha Christie you'll love Thomas Harris' blurbs on the front, and, hey prestissimo, straight it goes into 'General Fiction'. Very common and beyond understanding.

July 13, 2012  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Lawton sounds interesting--Powell, Waugh, and Wodehouse? I shall have to take a look at him. I hadn't heard of him before, so thanks for the review.

July 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, the Lawton story I mentioned here is part of a collection of spy stories. It's explicitly an espionage tale, based on the Christine Keeler-John Profumo scandal. In retrospect, though, some of the Troy novels cross borders at high levels and thus have some kinship with spy stories -- a closer kinship than with detective storie, despite Frederick Troy's profession.

Lawton has resisted being labelled a crime writer, yet I first heard him read at the Partners & Crime bookshop in New York, where he included Loren D. Estleman, Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker among his favorite writers. I wonder if Lawton thought of himself as a crime writer when he began writing novels. His one non-Troy novel that I know of has as its protagonist a detective investigating murders.

July 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, you write that "The widely-used system employed here has Lawton divided between crime fiction and general fiction." Does that imply that Lawton is not similarly divided in UK bookshops?

James Ellroy insists that he no longer writes crime novels, and he may have a point. Although it's hard to imagine an author more stylistically and temperamentally different from Lawton, there are certain similarities of ambition between the two.

July 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, you may love crime fiction and you may love Lawton, but you may well love them for different reasons. Frederick Troy, his protagonist, is a police officer, but investigation is a small part of the books. It's not that Lawton's novels "transcend the genre." It's not that he writes crime novels worthy of being called literature. He just writes something other than what one commonly thinks of as crime novels.

July 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, references to Wodehouse are scattered throughout Lawton's work. In addition to the ones about which I've posted previously, Blue Rondo/Flesh Wounds contains allusions and explicit references to Lord Emsworth. Not only does Lawton invoke Wodehouse, but he ranges beyond Bertie and Jeeves.

July 14, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Peter, re your question, I was thinking only of the public library system. Bookstores seem to me very careful in how they shelve books -- they have a lot more riding on it. I haven't been in a public library in the UK since 1997, but I recall well that at that time I encountered none of the ludicrous and, in my opinion, dangerous categorizing prevalent here.

'Dangerous' must seem a rather strong word in this context, so just a clarification. I used to stress to students at university the importance of browsing the stacks as well as using the catalogue, although the catalogue is vastly more reliable than that in public libraries, and in the latter, the opposite. A young student browsing in the local libraries will find in 'Travel' a translation from German of a history of the Revolutions of 1848, in 'History', a textless book of photos of Princess Diana, in 'Sociology of the Family' a work on the economy of the mediaeval city-state, and again in Travel an engineering work on the construction of castles. There is no Philosophy section but, in what passes for it, and in the unlikely event there lurks there a work of Plato, it will but a few books away from Deepak Chopra. I could go on. And on. These days, there is hardly much point, but I used to go to great pains to explain to students the nature of the historical discipline, and its relation to others, but this is for naught if the whole exercise is subverted by the public libraries. I view it as an attack on the very nature of knowledge.

July 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My experience with public libraries in the UK is restricted to twenty minutes in Bristol's looking for a computer. Your comment about categories, though, reminds me of the great variety of books to be found in the "Travel" section of bookstops, everything from Marco Polo to books about luxury hotels.

I once found William S. Burroughs lying on top of William F. Buckley at a secondhand bookshop.

July 14, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I read Blue Rondo a few years ago. Forgotten most of it already. I seem to remember the funeral scene was amusing.

But what I remember most is that the bad guys, when they eventually and belatedly appear, are called the Ryan twins (Oirish, in other words). It's blindingly obvious that they are based on the Kray twins, who were London through and through, with a background that was as much Jewish as it was Irish. And yet Lawton takes these London villians and makes them as Irish as he can. Stereotyping has its uses, especially in comedy, but in a reasonahly straightforward narrative like Lawton's, such stereotyping is just lame.

July 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't reached the twins' arrival yet, but I think Lawton has acknowledged that they were based on the Krays, though not as closely as some readers might think. What, if anything, Lawton's own Irish American ancestry has to do with your question, I don't know.

July 15, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

the Troy novels are the books I'd recommend first to a literate, intelligent person who asked, "What's England?"

Absolutely! I think I've written here before that Lawton's novels are the most revealing of English (London) society during the decades in which they are set. I wish he'd set one in the 1970s, the decade I lived in the UK, south of London.

July 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've thought that it might be interesting to see Troy amid the world of the Sex Pistols. But would be be too old to make a credible protagonist of a story set in that era?

July 18, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, I don't think a 1970s Lawton novel could even contain an aging Troy because SPOILER ALERT isn't it pretty clear that he died shortly after the end of A Little White Death?

July 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could be misremembering, but I think the possibioity is left open that he just might live.

July 18, 2012  

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