“Friends and Traitors” by John Lawton; Atlantic Monthly Press (384 pages, $26)
The facts, or at least some of them, are these: The real-life Guy Burgess (1911-63) was an English-born, Cambridge educated, flamboyant, gay, alcoholic, defiant intellectual who was recruited by the Russians as a spy. With several cohorts (gay and straight, mostly English) he helped to convey British and American atomic secrets to the Russians.
On May 25, 1951, he escaped via a French-bound cruise ship to the USSR, where he settled, somewhat uneasily, in the remote city of Samara. Five years later, he resurfaced, giving a five-minute interview from Moscow. In 1959, he made a request to return to England, but was refused by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. His health deteriorated and he died in Moscow at the age of 52. Another Briton, Donald MacLean, defected with Burgess on the same ship, while a third, Kim Philby, followed separately.
In “Friends and Traitors,” author John Lawton has brought back his popular Inspector Frederick Troy after a gap of seven years — his last appearance having been in “A Lily of the Field.” Here, the fictional Scotland Yard detective is pitted against — and sometimes placed as an unwilling ally to — the real-life Burgess, whom he has known since their time together at Cambridge, and has learned to tolerate despite Burgess’s salient character flaws.
At the start of the novel, we get quite a bit of background, going back to a party at the Troy family’s lavish home in Hertfordshire in 1935. Troy’s parents were Russian exiles who came to England poor and made it rich in the newspaper business. His older brother, Rod, is an MP with even higher things looming on the horizon. Fred’s choice of a career was a disappointment to his family, but he has built a big reputation for past successes — including successfully attending Nikita Khrushchev on his recent visit to Britain — but also some criticism for taking reckless chances and cutting corners when following the rules becomes inconvenient. Befriending Burgess appears to be one of Fred’s less practical decisions.
Now it is 1958. Rod, who refused to acknowledge his 50th birthday the previous year, has decided to celebrate his 51st by taking the who family on a grand tour of Paris, Siena, Florence, Vienna and Amsterdam. At a concert in Vienna, however, Frederick receives a message via the pianist, a longtime friend who just might be a spy herself. The message is from Burgess, who wants Troy to help him return to England. Troy, a glutton for problems if not punishment, is insatiably curious about the situation and attempts to help Burgess. He turns the matter over to M15 (British domestic intelligence), a decision that leads to complications not to be divulged here in detail.
Lawton, as in his previous “Inspector Troy” novels, is a master of creating a feeling of time and place, of amalgamating true-life events into his imaginative plot, of bringing every character, real or fictitious, major or minor, vividly to life. His writing is enormously colorful, his descriptions, whether of people, places or events inevitably convincing. Just to cite a particularly felicitous turn of phrase, one of Troy’s superiors is described as more “straight and decent” than most: “That was not to say that he was not devious, but his deviousness was usually in the service of his decency. He was quite capable of telling Troy to break the rules if breaking the rules got the job done.” The author also makes the incidental point that had homosexuality not been illegal at the time, much of the bad consequences would not have occurred, since the protagonists would not have been open to blackmail and the Russians would have had far less leverage.
Reading this narrative is like watching a newsreel and being sucked into the action. The surprises keep coming, not merely up to the last chapter but even to the novel’s very last line, which just happens to be in a foreign language.