Sunday, October 24, 2010

John Lawton, A LILY OF THE FIELD -- Top-Notch Police/Espionage

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." (Matthew 6: 28-29)

US cover
No elegantly arrayed ladies take center stage in John Lawton's A LILY OF THE FIELD (2010). Yet two of the women he presents use the "lily of the field" image, without the rest of its religious context. And in doing so, they take it nearly to the name of the blossom of the family Sternbergia, almost surely named in a cottage garden in England, hyphenated as if to show its heritage: lily-of-the-field.

There are no flowers, either, in this intense crime investigation among the British World War II survivors -- except for their scent, differentiated in two different and significant perfumes, only one of which is Chanel No. 5.

But there are Jews, real and mistaken (here's another English flower name, the "stinking Benjamin"). Concentration camps. Music lovers, music haters. Parallel lives of people whose roots coincide but whose paths take them into various forms of darkness -- and light, light as both the bath of blessing that washes us clean, and light so intense that it means death: "I am become Death, the destroyer of world," from the Bhagavad Gita as quoted by the "father" of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer.

And most of all, there is Inspector Frederick Troy, known mostly as "Troy" and a character of strengths, secrets, persistence, and precisely detailed agony over how murder detection for the police force repeatedly insists on choices that have long-range effects and soul-deep shock waves. Whether he is waiting for his brash brother Rod to process complex griefs about the war, or keeping one-legged hero Angus company on a bender, or witnessing the tears of an Auschwitz survivor, Troy's path takes him into sorrow and fear on a daily basis.

There have already been plenty of reviews of this book, giving parts of the plot lines -- for there are two of them initially, one for a teenaged cellist mistakenly seized in Vienna and bundled into a train headed for the most brutal of German projects, and the second for a physicist caught in holding camps in multiple nations. Inspector Troy's arrival comes about a third of the way into the book, and with that, there's a sort of relief, because with familiar police presence, maybe the confusion of war and displacement will prove to be the warp and woof of a unified and wonderful tapestry.

UK cover
So, indeed, it is -- such a grand tapestry with so much vibrant color and form that the book belongs on the shelf squarely between John Le Carré and Alan Furst, embracing both the stunned pain of England and the dark desperation of the rest of Europe during and immediately after the war. Lawton adds deft helpings of tenderness and familial love, as well as friendship. There are enough layers, and enough beautifully wrought satisfactions, that this book goes onto my "desert island" list: a book I'd be willing to read multiple times, whether in this weekend's gray cold of early winter, or hiding from a soft summer rain.


Note: I persist in being fascinated by the differences in US and UK cover designs. I vote for the train (see above).

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