15 March 2012

Review: A LILY OF THE FIELD, John Lawton

  • published Atlantic Monthly press, 2010
  • ISBN 978-0-8021-1956-8
  • 380 pages
  • source: my local library
  • #7 in published order of the Frederick Troy series, but #4 in chronological order.
Synopsis (from Fantastic Fiction)

Vienna 1934. Ten-year-old Meret Voytek becomes a pupil of esteemed musician professor Viktor Rosen, a Jew in exile from Germany. Three years later, aware that the Nazis are advancing, Rosen tells his promising pupil that he must leave Vienna for London.

When Vienna quietly comes under Nazi rule, Meret witnesses the repercussions for the city's Jews, but when her orchestra becomes a division of the Hitler Youth, she complies and wears the uniform.

Meanwhile, across Europe, Dr. Karel Szabo, a Hungarian physicist, has been interned in a camp on the Isle of Man. Shortly thereafter, Szabo is transported to Canada and rescued by the Americans, who recruit him to join the team in New Mexico building an atomic bomb.

In his ninth book, Lawton moves seamlessly from Vienna and Auschwitz to the deserts of New Mexico to London, illustrating the fascinating parallels of the enemy alien, Szabo and gentile Voytek, as fate carries each across the distinct and untraditional battlefields of the destructive war to an unexpected intersection at the novel's close. The result, A Lily of the Field, is Lawton's best book yet, an historically accurate and remarkably written novel that explores the diaspora of two Europeans from the rise of Hitler to the postatomic age.

My take

"Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin"
Matthew 6:28
I think perhaps my reading of this book suffered from the fact that the series this is part of is already well underway. I definitely didn't enjoy it as much as my friend and fellow blogger at CRIME SCRAPS REVIEW.

In the first half of the book Lawton introduces us to a rich cavalcade of characters all affected by the rise of the Third Reich and the advance of Hitler's troops into Poland and Austria. Some, Jews, Gentiles, Viennese, Poles, flee to England as early as 1935 ahead of the advance. Others are snatched off the streets and put onto trains taking them to Auschwitz.

Some meet again in England when they are rounded up into internment camps and then shipped off to Canada. Others meet in Auschwitz. Some survive because of their talents, others because they sell their souls to the devil, some because they do both.

And then the war ends and we are back in England and the crime fiction part of the novel begins with the murder on a tube station platform of one of the refugees and the subsequent involvement of Freddie Troy of Scotland Yard, his own family Russian refugees just thirty years before.

I think the richness of the information in the first half of the novel made it hard for the reader to decide what was important and what wasn't, what did I need to remember for later reference? Looking at the two halves of the novel, I think perhaps the author had a problem in deciding what he was writing: a historical fiction about the dreadful events of the Holocaust, or a murder mystery set in a Britain still under rationing and full of very confused,damaged, and often eccentric people.

But where I am torn is that this is a novel that makes you think, and, as readers of this blog will know, this is something that I value highly in my reading. A LILY OF THE FIELD presents scenarios that were new to me, and situations that I have not given much thought to before. The historical detail is rich and authentic. I think perhaps it was because there was so much detail that I had a problem in achieving focus and I found myself wondering in the first half of the novel when the crime fiction was going to kick in. It seemed that in the face of such inhumanity an "ordinary" murder would be very low key.

Freddie Troy is an interesting and quirky character who really operates by his own rules and his own sense of justice. He's a maverick in a world that is trying to establish order.

My rating: 4.3

Tell me, have you read this book or any in the series? What would you recommend? Shall I read another? Do I have to start at the beginning?

Another review to check on Euro Crime


    crimeficreader said...


    Atlantic in the UK are reissuing the backlist and I had a long chat with the London editor towards the end of last year. They are best read in the order they were written.
    As for where to start, Lily is indeed a difficult place in some respects as it draws an arc across a quite a lot of what has come before, focusing on the history and ‘the state of’ the globe at that time and conditions of life. The novels written earlier are more homed in on the mystery and spying elements such as Black Out, Old Flames, A Little Death.
    I hope that helps and I hope you enjoy more Lawton novels. I love them, as many know. ;)

    Kerrie said...

    Thanks CrimeFicReader, I'll give BLACKOUT a try

    Uriah Robinson said...

    Kerrie thanks for the mention. I agree with Rhian Blackout, Old Flames, and A Little White Death are very good. The first book chronologically [not published] Second Violin is one of the best and very thought provoking as foreign nationals are interred on the Isle of Man including Troy's brother born in Vienna.
    His wealthy parent's never bothered to get him naturalized and so in theory he was a citizen of the Reich!

    Maxine Clarke said...

    Nice review, Kerrie. I have not tried this series yet but in view of the various recommendations I am aiming to try Black Out at some point.

    Anonymous said...

    Here's the list of John Lawton's books in chronological order from the Murder by Type blog and the link to her review of Second Violin. Liz


    "According to a list at the beginning of A LILY OF THE FIELD, the order in which the books should be read chronologically as opposed to date of publication is as follows:


    TracyK said...

    Kerrie, I enjoyed your review of A Lily of the Field. In fact, I cited it at my review of Second Violin (which was the fifth book I had read in the series). I don't think I would have enjoyed Second Violin as much if I had read it first (as some reviewers suggest). I have always enjoyed your blog.


    Blog Widget by LinkWithin