BLACK OUT by John Lawton

(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill surveying damage to London caused by Nazi bombers on September 10, 1940)

I have been a fan of Alan Furst for years.  His evocative approach to espionage and his character development made his World War II noirs exciting and hard to put down.  Now, I have discovered another master of that genre, John Lawton.  The first book in Lawton’s Frederick Troy series entitled BLACK OUT features the intrepid Frederick Troy and his cohorts in Scotland Yard and an amazing array of individuals, who live in London in February, 1944, and a number of them who will also turn up in Berlin during the 1948 airlift  The mystery opens with a dog digging around in the trash and seizing an object, then runs with it in its mouth and drops it in front of a boy, the object is a human arm.  The night before this incident an American soldier gets his throat cut at Trafalgar Square.  Once an investigation begins Detective Sergeant Troy starts to connect a murder that took place a year earlier to the “arm” victim and the American soldier.  Troy is friends with another “copper” from Scotland Yard, George Bonham who lives in a house that rents apartments, and a Peter Wolinski, who worked at the George V dockyard, has turned up missing for unknown reasons.  Wolinski supposedly had taught college in Germany until Hitler forced him to leave and was a close friend of Bonham.  Once the investigation commences we begin to meet a series of interesting characters that include Ladislaw Kolankiewicz, who since 1934 had been the senior pathologist in Herndon.  Cooperating with Kolankiewicz, Troy pieces together the possibility that the two deaths and another missing person are all linked.  Troy, whose uncle Nikolai Rodyonavich worked with a team of scientists at the Imperial College in the Applied Physics Department provides a photograph to augment Troy’s suspicions.  When a socialite, Diane Ormond-Brack is seen leaving Wolinski’s apartment with a copy of the same photograph that Nikolai had shown Troy, suspicions are further aroused.  What Troy gathers is that these individuals may have been developing “lightweight alloys, tough, non-corrodable, and thin.  And they were also on to what that is-on to chemical propulsion,” rockets.(88)  When Troy visits N.A.G. Pym at MI5, and a Colonel Zelig at American headquarters in London to obtain answers he is stonewalled by both and gets nowhere, reaffirming his suspicions that all three incidents are linked to rocket development by the Germans.  In laying out the plot Lawton has drawn the reader into his web of British accents and language, espionage, and a case that is definitely beyond Inspector Troy’s pay grade.

Frederick Troy is a wonderful character to build a World War II and post war noir around.  His family emigrated from Russia after Stalin took control.  Troy’s older brother is an RAF pilot and in 1936 Troy was a raw recruit from the countryside who was taken in my George Bonham and his wife and shown the ropes concerning survival in London and pursuing police work in a city that had been ravaged by the Luftwaffe for five years.  What Troy strongly suspects is that after a fourth murder that an American Major Jimmy Wayne, an Office of Strategic Services (OSS-precursor to the CIA) agent is involved with all of them.  His investigation seems reflect Wayne’s guilt,  but evidence is circumstantial.  Troy is joined by his protégé Jack Wildeve, and his commander at Scotland Yard, Stan Onions in seeking the truth.  Two women are also present to confuse and cajole Troy.  First, we revisit Diane Ormond-Brack,  a girl friend of Major Wayne who later will become Troy’s lover.  Second, is M/SGT Larissa Tosca, seemingly Colonel Zelig’s secretary, but even while she is bedding Troy has an interesting shadow life that he is unaware of.  The novel places the reader in the heart of London right before D Day, June 6, 1944.  Characters have to deal with shortages of food and other staples.  In addition, we witness the underground community that lives beneath London subways to escape years of bombing, and English resentment of American soldiers who seem to have taken over their country and especially their women.  At this time the United States and the Soviet Union, realizing that the end of Nazi Germany will soon be at hand engage in a race to bring out of Germany as many scientists and intelligence assets that they can.*  The story changes focus once the war ends and shifts to post war Berlin which is enduring the 1948 air lift.

The novel is exceptionally written and Lawton’s integration of events is very helpful for the reader in developing historical context.  Throughout the narrative the author merges his own opinion of certain historical figures that are not only humorous at times, but very accurate.  For example, Lawton references General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Troy has grown increasingly frustrated when OSS Colonel Zelig claims that the D Day commander that a meeting with Major Wayne was an alibi to block Troy’s suspicions. Describing Zelig and Eisenhower, Lawton writes, “The rain was beginning to soak through his overcoat.  He went quickly back to the car.  Was it worth a try?  One bald-headed American was probably much the same as any other bald-headed American.  The only difference lay in the amount of scrambled egg on the cap.  Though, being fair, Troy felt Ike had better table manners.”(106)  Along with numerous astute observations, Lawton regales the reader by placing certain literary figures throughout the narrative as an intellectual tease.  The relationship between the OSS and MI5 is explored in detail and British distrust for that “pernicious organization” is readily apparent.  For the Americans they had had it with British, “procedure and protocol.”  Lawton also introduces Soviet espionage in the last part of the novel that reorients both Troy and the reader.

Troy  finds himself in the middle of turf battles of allied intelligence agencies throughout the book.  His investigation is blocked by both agencies and his fight to solve, what he thinks are four murders in the shadowy background of D Day and after is fascinating.  The author’s conclusion tying pre and post war espionage is calculating and keeps the reader guessing.  Lawton first installment of Detective Troy is a great read and I look forward to engaging the entire series.

  • See “The Nazis Next Door,” by Eric Lichtblau reviewed by Deborah Lipstadt,  New York Times  October 31, 2014.
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