Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Unfortunate Englishman: Another historical hit from John Lawton

Does John Lawton write spy novels? If so, when did espionage fiction edge over from geopolitical thrills to meditations on identity and personal and national character? Which authors and books are responsible? And does it matter?

John Lawton's Unfortunate Englishman takes thief-turned-spy Joe Wilderness to Berlin at the height of the Cold War, where he is to mediate an exchange of prisoners between Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. The title character is a schlemiel nabbed for his ineptitude as a spy for the British, and the action consists of efforts to swap him for his opposite number and of flashes back and forward between the early and the mid-1960s.

Along the way, we see the Berlin Wall rise before our eyes and Wilderness encounter Nikita Khrushchev on the Soviet leader's (imaginary) solo tour of the city. Two supporting characters in the novel are shot by the Soviets for their activities, but the executions happen off-stage and they make their presence felt through the schlemiel's brief but intense reaction to them. The reticence of the portrayal makes the executions all the more chilling.

This character-based storytelling works in a kind of alchemy with Lawton's closely observed period detail to reinforce the status Lawton built in his Frederick Troy books as quite possibly the best historical novelist we have. Fans of those novels will be happy to know that Troy and his brother Rod make brief appearances in The Unfortunate Englishman.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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9 Comments:

Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

I appreciate your great posting/review. As a fan of historical fiction (including those featuring crime and/or espionage), I'm adding Lawton to my library "wish list". Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.
All the best from the Gulf Coast and Past Perfect Murders.
Tim Davis
http://pastperfectmurders.blogspot.com/2016/06/treasure-hunt-by-andrea-camilleri.html

June 01, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Have you read his Troy novels? I can say (and have said) much in Lawton's favor, but I offer no higher praise than saying that he loves P.G. Wodehouse.

June 01, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

No, I'm not familiar with anything by Lawton. And my mid-day trip to the local library was a "bust" in that no Lawton books were on the shelves. I'll try to cast a wider net in my search by going to Kindle options.

June 01, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm surprised you have not come across Lawton. He's intelligent, literate, funny, a fine prose stylist, and he offers great insight into English character. Scroll through my blog and lot my posts about him. I think he'd be right up your alley.

June 01, 2016  
Blogger R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

Peter, I will continue the search. There are too many authors and books, but not very much time. My earlier career commitments did not leave much time for reading crime fiction, so my range of knowledge about authors and books in the genre is quite far behind that of most other crime fiction readers. I'll scroll through and check out your postings on Lawton et al.

June 01, 2016  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Pete. Will get this one for him.

June 01, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, have you read Lawton? He's attended at least one Bouchercon (I moderated a panel that included him), and he'll turn up at events here and in ENgland from time to time. He's one of the best.And yes, this particular book in particular is timely, given your recent Berlin visit.

June 01, 2016  
Blogger Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Peter, I enjoy reading espionage fiction, more so if it is set during WWII and the Cold War. Thanks for the review for it has introduced me to a new author.

June 02, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I also liked the "Queen and Country" graphic novel series and I am enjoying a current series called "Velvet." The former is at least as much about office politics as it is about spying, and the latter has a fair amount of James Bond-like gadgetry, a dose of melodramatic personal motivation, and a female protagonist. You might like them if you have not read them already.

June 02, 2016  

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