Friends and Traitors by John Lawton


published 2017



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She stood at the top, just visible beyond the curve, and slinked into view.

He would not have missed this for the world. Her hair piled high on her head, her body sheathed in a scarlet dress that all but swept the floor. On the first half-landing she spun, and he could see that the dress, low-cut in the front, was even lower cut in the back. She glided towards him.


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[Later, Troy meets a semi-colleague for the first time] Jordan had been right in his description – tall, dark and handsome. Indeed Kearney looked remarkably like the depiction of James Bond on the paperback of Casino Royale – the strong profile, the ever-errant lock of hair, the unfeeling brown eyes. The same cover on which Vesper Lynd was shown wearing the red dress Venetia had worn that night…


commentary: I rarely use pictures of dresses without a person inside, but this particular dress was so very much the right one … It is a 1955 Balenciaga evening dress, and is currently on show at the V&A museum in London. It is stunningly beautiful, and a masterpiece of design and construction.

John Lawton says his books can be read in any order. Len Deighton says the same about his Berlin triple trilogy, and I argued politely about that here. And now I would take issue with Lawton too – what are these authors thinking? I have read a lot of books by John Lawton, most of them dealing with the scandals, crimes and spy dramas of British life in the 1950s and 1960s. I always enjoy them, but they jump about all over the place, and presuppose an awful lot of knowledge about real life, and about Lawton’s books, and about quite a lot of other books as well – for example there is a character who would seem to be a resurrection of Margery Allingham’s Magersfontein Lugg, though he is not named as such.

This one was nudging at the end of my patience for the remarkable life of Frederick Troy -  though I did enjoy the work colleagues who made a list of all the people who had died in close proximity to him, including many policemen, and remarked how very suspicious that was. Well, exactly.

The books are meant to take an unsentimental and unblinkered view of the shady world of spies and criminals, but the hero Troy is unfathomably rich, lives in great comfort both in a Central London flat and a country house, and is smoothly well-connected, with his family (including his brother the Home Secretary) knowing anyone of any power and importance in the land. He is also magnetically attractive to all women. All of them. They can’t wait to jump into bed with him. He is marginally less convincing and more fairytale than James Bond in this respect: I read all the James Bond books last year, so feel I am in a position to judge.

And Lawton has plainly been looking at James Bond, as in the extract above. In fact Vesper Lynd does not wear a red dress in Casino Royale, though she does wear a red pleated cotton skirt at one point. The key dress she does wear is black velvet, and it is used to silence and blindfold her in a peculiarly unpleasant image.


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Still – the story was compelling and twisted and turned satisfyingly. Troy was shown to be a long-time acquaintance of the strange spy Guy Burgess. The early part of this book deals with early meetings between them between 1938 and the 1950s: then we jump to a connection between the two men later. There is the usual mistrust and uncertainty.

I think anyone who really enjoys spy stories will have time for this book… and probably the whole series.

The only Lawton book I have looked at on the blog was a non-fiction account of the Profumo Affair (that Mandy Rice-Davies hat!).

Earlier this year Joseph Kanon produced an excellent book called Defectors, again about the British spies who fled to Moscow in the 1950s – I used the same photo of Guy Burgess and Tom Driberg.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I have mentioned before that I am always on a watch for the word ‘credenza’ in books – usually a piece of office furniture in US crime novels of the 80s and 90s. In this book we have a Chippendale credenza! Stay classy, Lawton.






















Comments

  1. I'd be suspicious of all of those deaths, too, Moira... Still, this one does sound as though it keeps the tension going, and has some really interesting plot lines. Not sure about a character who's got so much going for him (money, connections, women....), but it does sound interesting. And that Balenciaga is amazing!

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    1. I love that dress so much, I want to wear it - to a ball or the opera, obviously...
      It's enjoyable enough as a book, but I think perhaps he should find a new character, start a new series maybe? but then who am I to say...

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  2. Credenza being a bonkers sort of name for a furnishing, I had to look it up: and discovered that it used to be associated with taste testing food for poisons - a necessary precaution if one were a sixteenth century nobleman, monarch or a Pope.
    I wonder if that if that is why it appears so often in crime novels?

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    1. "Though you would often in the fifteenth century have heard the snobbish Roman say, in a would-be off-hand tone, 'I am dining with the Borgias tonight,' no Roman ever was able to say, 'I dined last night with the Borgias.'"
      -Max Beerbohm.
      Frederick Troy seems to have a similar effect.

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    2. Sandy H: that is very interesting - especially as it seems to be connected also to something called a credence table, which is near the altars in churches. Those Renaissance Cardinals eh? A bit of everything.
      And, anonymous, thanks for rounding out the thought...

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  3. I am looking forward to reading this book, although I have so many books already in the queue I don't know when that will be. I have loved everyone of Lawton's books about Troy, but they do frustrate me with hopping around and not having much continuity. Or continuity I can remember.

    I think I read one of the Troy books out of order, just as an experiment, and it did not hurt, but in general I think the order written is preferable when possible, regardless of chronological order.

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    1. I have loved them in the past, that's why I was surprised that I wasn't more enthusiastic about this one, especially as I do love a book about 1950s British spies.
      I'm more likely to believe you, Tracy, than any author about reading out of order, because I know you take it seriously.

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  4. I don't feel quite convinced about the book - but oh, the Balenciaga dress! I had to look twice at it to determine whether it was a 19th century bustle dress or not. It isn't of course, but it flirts very demurely and knowingly with that period. It is the kind of dress one would almost kill for. First to own it, then to have an occasion to wear it...

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    1. I know I know me too. I just stood and started at it in the exhibition. The man was a genius. And yes, you would need the right event...

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  5. That is an absolutely beautiful dress. It actually works seeing it without a wearer, simply because it is the sort of thing that transforms the woman wearing it. Some clothes just hang off people, but that shapes and alters and enhances.

    I've not read any of the books, so I can't really comment, but Troy does sound as though he comes from a much older tradition of spying heroes than even James Bond. Although the film 007 is incredibly well-heeled, with more than enough money for all his needs and an ability to charm into bed women whom he's only known for about 15 seconds, Book Bond feels much more fallible and real, an outsider with no real connections or family. He also has to work to rather harder to win over his ladies.

    I've been reading some stuff about espionage recently, but it's all been real-life. Henry Hemming's biography of Maxwell Knight, one of Britain's great spymasters is so full of absolutely bizarre detail about the jazz musician turned spy turned TV naturalist that it makes fiction look rather tame.

    ggary

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    1. Well you've certainly made me want to read the book about Knight. I do usually enjoy them all - fact, fiction, and fiction-looped-around-fact. Anything you read about the Cold War spies I think is full of those moments when you long to say to someone (like a long-suffering partner) 'guess what? you'll never believe this...' about some incredible fact.

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  6. I'm sure I have one maybe two from him in the tubs, which I'll get to eventually (hopefully) but unless they are amazing I doubt I'll get as far as this one. I still need to try a bit of Ian Fleming.

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    1. Surely you have! Fleming first though...

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  7. Never read Lawton Moira, but sounds like fun, thanks! You had an interesting "j" and "g" transposition episode with your reference to Margery Allingham and Magersfontein Lugg that reals made me smile as that happens to me all the time :)

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    1. Give one a try Sergio, you might like them.
      I was struggling with Lugg's name (& should've looked it up) but am shocked by my getting Margery wrong, that's one I do know! (Can I blame auto-correct...?) I will go and put it right now.

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    2. Fixed! They are weirdly almost anagrams aren't they? Thanks for pointing that out.

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