The spy novelist whose spies are crooks
Author combines espionage, crime in 'Bluffing Mr. Churchill'
By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN
John Lawton with his friend, Fitz.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Many spy novelists make their spies into heroes, even if those heroes are conflicted. John Lawton writes spy novels in which the spies are villains, and there's no doubt about it.
"I write what I call 'anti-spook' novels," the British author said during a visit to New York in December. "The spooks will never, ever be the good guys in my books. ... I really did want to write about crime, espionage, and politics, from the position that all spooks have got to be bad guys."
His new book, "Bluffing Mr. Churchill" (Atlantic Monthly Press), first published in the UK in 2001, is set during the early days of 1941, when the Germans were dominating the European continent, the British were fighting for their lives, and the United States had yet to enter the war.
"Bluffing Mr. Churchill" comes on the heels of two other novels starring Frederick Troy, the black sheep son of a Russian refugee from the 1905 revolt, who defies the grain of his family's new elevated status by serving as Scotland Yard's new blood in wartime London. Unfettered by the necessities of the lower classes (his father, Alexei, founded the family fortune by stealing as much loot as he could spirit out of Russia), Troy combines canny powers of deduction with dogged determination and a strong belief in modern forensics.
(The novels have been published out of sequence in the U.S.: the first Troy novel, "Black Out," was set in 1941, while the next, "Old Flames," was set in 1956.)
Lawton's rich detail establishes the story right away. Still stinging from Dunkirk, Britain is at first surprised by the capture of Rudolf Hess, then devastated by the sinking of HMS Hood.
Troy is literally dragged into a case involving intelligence operatives from the U.S., UK, and Germany, who are chasing a highly placed German officer (a confidante of SS chief Heydrich) who secretly spied for the U.S. throughout the Nazi ascension and now carries in his head the blueprint for Operation Barbarossa -- Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.
"I didn't find any temporal paradoxes that I couldn't handle," Lawton said. "It's a very enjoyable thing to do, to jump time and play around with characters you've already established."
Twists on a rich heritage
The kind of historical espionage fiction Lawton writes has a rich heritage, made richer in recent years by novelists blending the genre with elements of the more traditional whodunit.
While Graham Greene, John le Carré and Ken Follett have regaled many with their furtive and frantic agents, newer names like Philip Kerr and Joseph Kanon have woven strains of mystery, suspense, and police procedural fiction in with the dances of their spies.
Lawton fits right in with the new breed -- except for those pesky agents. Bad they are, and the cops are the ones caught in between.
That wasn't unusual, said Lawton. "The British secret services have always used the police as their public face," he explained.
This stance facilitates Lawton's lashing together of the mystery and espionage genres, and enables him to explore key historical periods with a keen eye toward Anglo-American relations and the growing might of the USSR.
Besides Troy and the irascible police pathologist, Ladislaw Kolankiewicz ("The Beast of Lodz"), fans can expect a wealth of engaging new characters, including Americans. Indeed, a strong yearning for America to join the war is tangible in the novel -- as is isolationist American sentiment to getting involved.
World War II nostalgia
Also in evidence is Lawton's exploration of the peculiarly nostalgic legacy of World War II in England, even in its infancy.
"I think nostalgia for the war didn't really begin until the late '40s," he said. "At this point in the war [in the book], the attitude of the British was, we're absolutely up against it, the Low Countries, Denmark and Norway had all fallen, we didn't know which way Russia's going to jump, we're all praying America jumps in with us."
Lawton's version of the "finest hour" suggests it was born of a collective desperate hope.
"When I talked to people who were around at the time, I never met anyone who actually thought we'd lose," he said. "So what we get is the British at their lowest point, which they do not see as their lowest point."
If Lawton is not yet a household name in the U.S., Hollywood may shortly lend a helping hand. Rights to the Troy character have been sold to Columbia Pictures, so it may not be long before Americans see a new English hero who is not quite English, a copper instead of a spy, who deals in murder instead of microfilm, who hunts local murderers against the backdrop of the greatest international conflagration in modern history.
It's only fitting for the author of "anti-spook" novels.