1950s, book review, Britain, Cambridge Five, espionage, Guy Burgess, historical fiction, homophobia, John Lawton, MI5, Soviet Union, Special Branch, thriller
Review: Friends and Traitors, by John Lawton
Atlantic, 2017. 341 pp. $26
If I were to describe a thriller whose central incident doesn’t happen until around page 200, and whose back-story-laden narrative revolves around an essentially harmless, flamboyantly foolish turncoat spy, you would likely decide that the book was a plodding, pointless tale, not worth your time.
In this case, though, you’d be wrong. The back story reveals England of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties with remarkable vividness, brio, and wit, focusing on, among other issues, laws and prejudice against homosexual behavior, and the equally prejudiced mindset about national security and how to act in its name. You see these come alive through a compelling protagonist, Frederick Troy, not your ordinary copper. Born to Russian émigrés under the name Troitsky, Troy, as even his girlfriends call him, walked away from a scholarship to Oxford to join the London police force and serve in the East End, a tough patch. Recruited to Scotland Yard above more experienced candidates in the late 1930s, he has been solving murders ever since, up until 1958, when the forward action of Friends and Traitors begins. Like many fictional detectives, he sails very close to the wind, and unscrupulous, vicious characters have a way of disappearing when he’s around, whether they belong to the police force or the criminals. So far, he has covered his tracks, but not without attracting suspicion.
What threatens to undo Troy at this juncture is his friendship with Guy Burgess, later known as a member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring; but, as this portrayal would have it, Burgess is very much a junior partner in that game. Still, when he defects with Donald Maclean in 1951, their flight embarrasses and surprises the British intelligence community and causes a rift with its American counterparts. Troy, who has known Burgess for decades, first through family connections, and later because the man keeps crossing his path like a bad penny, has always been suspect for this association. But Troy thinks that what MI5 and Special Branch really object to, aside from shame at their own lapse, is Burgess’s unapologetic, open homosexuality, which to Troy shouldn’t be considered a crime.
Moreover, Burgess’s inability to keep a secret, and the relatively short time he was working for the Foreign Office, suggest he’s not much of a threat. Self-absorbed, boorish, insulting, and vain, yes; but since when are those qualities treasonous? Nevertheless, when Burgess lets it be known in 1958 that he wishes to return to England, several people whom both he and Troy know wind up dead, and others are running scared, including at least one former lover of Troy’s.
From there, the pieces that Lawton has laid in place with seeming casualness turn out to matter in ingenious, unexpected ways, so cleverly that not even Troy understands the depth of his troubles before they arrive. The sentence, “Someone was following Troy,” recurs constantly. For a man of his experience, that’s almost an insult. And since he never takes his medicine quietly, he leads his watchdogs in Special Branch up hill and down dale, at one point leaving a Lewis Carroll poem in a tree for them to puzzle over. Very snarky. But what else would you expect from the youngest child with two twin sisters named Sasha and Masha, each of whom has a particular brand of acting badly, and an oh-so-righteous older brother, Battle of Britain hero, member of Parliament, and all that, who may be prime minister one day? It’s always been Troy’s job to be different in a family of individualists, and he does so with a sharp sense of humor.
Then there’s the prose, which evokes myriad times and places, as with this description of the London Blitz:
It seemed to Troy that the night sky was short on sky’s own colour — blue. Reds it had aplenty, from the bright, post-office-van scarlet of the flames that leapt heavenward from burning buildings to the colouring-book-and-wax-crayon carmine of tracers and the paintbox burnt orange of ack-ack shells popping uselessly among the beaten-metal pewter hue of the barrage balloons. Incendiaries burnt white to silver, and the searchlights sliced up the night with long fingers of pure, clear light. Rarely had he seen a plane hit, either ours or theirs, but when it happened every colour in the rainbow might burst forth.
My only quibble is Burgess himself, who’s so unappealing that if I were Troy, I’d run in the other direction. At times Troy does, yet he also seems fascinated, and I’m not sure why. Burgess’s willingness to say what no one else will? Troy’s stubborn refusal to shun a man whom his conventional older brother has warned him about? Hard to know, but I still recommend Friends and Traitors.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.