Lily of the field (book review)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.
It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.
When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.
But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven’t read the other books.
The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.
Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he “went ballistic”. “Ballistic” was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM — an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I’m sure it took a few more years before the term “went ballistic” was applied metaphorically to human beings.
The second such anachronism is where someone is described as “a scrounger living low on the food chain”. Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don’t think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.
Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of “blows coppers away”. That one I’m not sure of, but I don’t think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.
Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren’t around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.
In spite of that, it’s still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I’ll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really.