The latest novel from the master spy novelist John Lawton follows Inspector Troy, now Scotland Yard’s chief detective, deep into a scandal reminiscent of the infamous Profumo affair.
England in 1963 is a country set to explode. The old guard, shocked by the habits of the war baby youth, sets out to fight back. The battle reaches uncomfortably close to Troy. While he is on medical leave, the Yard brings charges against an acquaintance of his, a hedonistic doctor with a penchant for voyeurism and young women, two of which just happen to be sleeping with a senior man at the Foreign Office as well as a KGB agent.
But on the eve of the verdict, a curious double case of suicide drags Troy back into active duty. Beyond bedroom acrobatics, the secret affairs now stretch to double crosses and deals in the halls of power, not to mention murder. It’s all Troy can do to stay afloat in a country immersed in drugs and up to its neck in scandal.
“John Lawton is so captivating a storyteller that I’d happily hear him out on any subject.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
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January 1963 England
When the snow lay round about. Deep. And crisp. And even. England stopped.
First the roads, from the fledgling six-lane autobahns, known as 'motorways' – a word used as evocatively as 'international' or 'continental' – to the winding, high-hedged lanes of Hertfordshire, disappeared under drifting snow. Then, the telephone lines, heavy with the weight of ice, snapped. Then the electricity supply began to flicker – now you see it now you don't. And lastly, huffing and puffing behind iron snow ploughs as old as the century and more, the railways ground to a halt at frozen points and blocked tunnels.
It was the worst winter in living memory, and when and where did memory not live? It squatted where you did not expect it. And where you did. Not-so- old codgers would compare the winter of 1963, favourably or not, to that of 1947. Old codgers, ancient codgers, codgers with no calendar right even to be living at all, would trounce opinion with a masterly, ''T'ain't nothin' compared to 1895.'
Rod Troy, Home Affairs spokesman in Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, a Labour MP since the landslide of 1945, had reason to be grateful to his father, the late Alexei Troy. When refitting the stately Hertfordshire pile he had bought in 1910, as a final refuge after five years a wandering exile from Imperial Russia, he had installed electricity and the telephone – the first in the village – and omitted to remove the gas lamps. Gas was a hard one to stop. It wouldn't freeze and it had no wires to snap. So it was that, in the middle of a blanketed white January Rod found himself cut off in Mimram House, marooned in snow, stranded in a post-Christmas limboland, bereft of wife and children, hunched over a traditional English pastime, by the romantic glow of gaslight, facing a short, dark, irritating alien he ruefully acknowledged as his younger brother Frederick.
'How can you?' he yelled. 'How can anyone cheat at Monopoly?'
'That's what it's for,' Troy replied. 'If you can't cheat, I can't see the point in playing.'
'Grow up, Freddie. For God's sake grow up. That's just the sort of attitude you had as a child.'
'It's a childish game, Rod.'
'It's about rules and trust and codes of conduct. All games are!'
Rod should have known better. Such argument had never cut mustard with Troy when they were children and in middle age it was inviting the pragmatic scorn he seemed to store up in spades.
'No it's not, it's about which bugger can be the first to stick a hotel on Park Lane.'
Rod swept the board to the floor. 'Sod you then!' And walked out.
Troy passed an hour in his study, staring at the unchanging landscape, the monotony of white. He put John Coltrane's 'Giant Steps' on the gramophone, but was not at all sure that he was not kidding himself that he had a taste for the music, and he was damn sure it didn't go with England in January. Did Delius write no Winterreise? Had Elgar left no Seasons?
It occurred to him that he should go and look for Rod before Rod found him. He would only want to apologise and Troy could not bear his apologies. It seemed wise to head him off at the pass. They might, after all, have to spend days cooped up like this, and while the house was big enough to lose a small army within, they would inevitably end up together and if Monopoly brought them to grief, God help them when Troy started to cheat at pontoon.
The cellar door stood open, a gust of icy air wafting up from below stairs.
Troy called out his brother's name and waited.
'Down here in the wine cellar!'
Troy moved cautiously down the stairs, the light dimly orange in the distance as Rod waved his torch beam around.
'I think I've made a bit of a find.'
Troy could not see him, only the dancing end of the torch. Then the beam shot inwards, and Rod's face appeared, pumpkin-headed, in the light.
'Hold this a mo'. I'll get the gas lit.'
A rasp of match, a burst of flame, and Rod reached upwards and lit the gas jet. In the flickering hiss of gaslight Troy found himself framed by vast dusty racks of wine, countless bottles in long rows stretching away under the house. Rod stood facing him, absurdly wrapped up against the cold in the eiderdown off his bed, belted around his chest and waist, looking like the rubber man in the tyre adverts. He appeared to be clutching a solitary bottle of wine.
'What have you found?' Troy asked.
Rod wiped the label with his sleeve.
'The paper's a bit perished, but it says 1928 and I'd lay odds of ten to one it's Veuve Clicquot.'
'Does champagne keep that long?'
'Haven't the foggiest. But there's only one way to find out.'
He unhooked two glasses from the side of a wooden rack, where they had sat untouched since before the war and wiped the dust from them.
The champagne burst into the glass in a healthy stream of bubbles. Troy swigged some of his and pronounced it 'OK'. Rod sipped his gently and said, 'OK? It's bloody marvellous.'
Then the pause, the reflective stare into the glass. The thought so visibly running through his mind and across his features that Troy grew impatient and wished he would speak.
'Whenever I pull the cork on one of these ...'
Troy knew what was coming. He could see the curve of Rod's illogic arcing between them like static.
'Or whenever I watch you ...'
He sipped and stared into his glass a little more.
'I think of the old man. Every time. Never fails. No matter what is on my mind or whatever shit you are giving me, as you are so wont to do – and age does not diminish it – it gives me pause. I think of our father.'
'Sort of like unholy sacrament. An atheist communion?'
'Don't piss on it, Freddie. I'm serious.'
'So am I. Has it ever occurred to you that's why he left us this lot, so that we should think of him from time to time?'
'I didn't say from time to time, I said every time. And who else would he have left it to? And I wonder, what else did he leave us of himself? If this is blood of his blood, where is flesh of his flesh?'
Troy was not sure he could follow this.
'Who the hell was he? Was he the same man he was to you that he was to me?'
'Doubt it,' said Troy.
'I mean ... I'm his first born, you're his last, the child of his dotage —'
'Hardly dotage. He wasn't that old.'
'There, there's my point. How old was he? Did you ever know? When was he born? Did he ever tell you? Or where?'
'Must've done. Moscow, Tula, I don't know. And if he didn't, his dad lived with us for fifteen years. He must have mentioned it. God knows he rambled on enough.'
'Quite. He rambled. His stories never went anywhere. But the old man was a master of precision. He told us everything – at least it seemed like everything – yet when I come to look back on it there are gaps you could drive a tram through.'
Again the pause, long enough for Troy to refill both their glasses. Troy could see his brother's point even if he could see neither the gap nor the tram. Personally he was sure such minor details as the date and place of his father's birth were simply and temporarily lost in his memory; it was not that he didn't know, it was not that he had not been told. But at the heart of the matter, the man was an enigma.
'You're right, of course,' Rod resumed his musing. 'He wasn't the same man to both of us. I got sent away to school before you were so much as a toddler. You hung around the house almost till adolescence —'
'I was at home because I was a sickly child, Rod, they weren't doing me any favour.'
'Nonetheless you were there. He talked endlessly to you. You were his favourite.'
'Rod, this is bollocks. I was the youngest, that's all.'
'Youngest. Hand-reared. Privy to his wisdom.'
'Recipient of all his gags and anecdotes, if that's what you mean? Child corrupted by his view of history and politics, if that counts for anything.'
'OK. That's a bit steep. Let us say I was nurtured into an unfortunate precociousness by prolonged exposure to his didactic asides. He taught me the Theory of Surplus Value when I was seven. Had me on the Second Law of Thermodynamics before I was ten.'
'Bugger me! More booze, I think. I cannot listen to sentences like that and stay sober.'
Rod stuck out his glass again. It seemed a daft thing to be doing, sitting on beer crates in a dark cellar, scarcely above freezing, getting pissed on vintage champagne and pretending not to mind the cold. Rod might not be feeling it, but Troy had on nothing thicker than his Aran sweater. Still, if this was how Rod wanted to spend the last hour of daylight, Troy would humour him.
'Think of it,' Rod went on. 'I mean, think of him. Of what he did for us. I always felt secure in the world as he made it for us. I can't help but wonder if my kids can ever feel what that means. Wonder if they'll ever feel the same security. The world he built around us.'
'Troy Nation,' said Troy softly.
'That's how I used to think of it. So often I ended up housebound, one damned ailment or another. The house was the world for a time. I used to think of it as Troy Nation. A country entire unto itself.'
Rod looked up at the ceiling. Troy knew what he was thinking. In the mind's eye, he was looking through the ceiling. Stripping away the layers in time and putting them back on in an order of his own choosing. This house, these five storeys of junk-packed, book-lined, history-ridden rooms, looming above them like the edifice of memory, a world of its own through which the old man moved mysteriously even now. The house ought be haunted. It was made to be haunted. Yet they conjured him in words not spirit; he haunted not the structure of their house, but the structure of their minds. Most of the time Troy could take him or leave him. He had long ago got used to being Alex Troy's boy. At forty-seven, Commander of CID, Scotland Yard, half a dozen commendations and an ex-wife to his name, he was still 'Alex Troy's boy'. Doubt caused him little conscience, but such conscience all but made a coward of Rod. Doubting the old man would nag and nag at him, and he could not dismiss it. If there was one gift Troy would have given his brother, it was to free him from such doubt. He had, he knew, probably sown the seed himself.
Away over their heads Troy could hear a bell ringing. It seemed an impossible noise. Logic ruled it out as being simply the doorbell. In households such as this someone else usually answered the door and told the caller whether or not you were at 'ome, regardless of whether you were. And no one had fought their way up the drive from the village in days. Clearly Rod was not going to answer, half-pissed, wrapped up too cosily in his eiderdown, the Michelin man, still sipping the last of the Veuve Clicquot.
'You'd better go and see,' he said, smiling faintly. 'It's probably Titus Oates or Captain Scott.'
It was Driffield the postman. The surliest bastard alive, as far as Troy was concerned. Or – to be precise on the matter of titles – the surliest sub-postmaster, a man in whose eyes Troy was still twelve and simply his father's son, requiring no more in the way of courtesy than a clip 'round the ear 'ole from time to time. He was attired much after the fashion of Rod: at least two overcoats had been added to a layer or more of pullovers and onion rings of collars and scarves obscured most of his face. All the same, Troy could see from the eyes that it was him, and from the expression in them he was, as ever, not best pleased to have trudged up the hill. To do so in several feet of snow had merely refined what was fundamental in his nature. No doubt he missed the days, long gone, when Troy's father would send a donkey and cart to the village to collect the mail.
'I don't know why I does this for you buggers, but I does,' he said. 'Tel'grammes it is, you hev got tel'grammes, the blarsted pair o' ye. Why ye gaht to hev tel'grammes on a day like this, Gahd knows.'
It was, it seemed, deeply inconsiderate of the Troys to be in receipt of tel'grammes of which they knew nothing.
A mittened hand shoved two envelopes at Troy, and then returned to sink into its pocket once more as its owner set off back down the drive, ploughing the trench in the snow he had cut on the way up.
'Aren't you going to wait for the reply?' Troy yelled after him. More often than not the man would tell you what was in a telegramme before you could open it, would stand on the step and recite it to you before you could so much as break the seal, but now nothing, it seemed, would keep him a moment longer.
'Phone it through,' he said over his shoulder. 'There's two blokes from the GPO up a pole in the lane. Ye'll hev phones again in half an hour or so they reckon.'
Rod appeared behind Troy. Troy handed him the small brown envelope and tore open the one with his own name on it. The telegramme meant nothing to him.
HUGH TURN FOR WORST STOP FEAR HE MAY NOT LAST STOP SUGGEST COME SOONEST STOP BILL STOP
Troy read it again, wondering if the author's economy with language and cost had left him to guess at a vital aspect of its meaning.
Rod snatched it from his hand. Stuck another in front of him.
'Dozy sod's put them in the wrong envelopes. You've got mine and I've got yours.'
The new telegramme scarcely made more sense than the last. But at least it was written with scant regard for cost in fully grammatical sentences.
DEAR FREDDIE STOP LONG TIME NO SEE STOP I WOULDN'T BE WRITING TO YOU OUT OF THE BLUE IF IT WEREN'T IMPORTANT STOP I DON'T THINK I HAVE MUCH TIME LEFT STOP I'D LIKE TO SEE YOU ONE MORE TIME BEFORE THE END STOP I'D LIKE TO THINK THAT OUR FRIENDSHIP SURVIVES ON THAT LEVEL AND THAT I CAN ASK THIS OF YOU STOP COULD YOU COME TO BEIRUT? STOP NOW? STOP I'VE RESERVED A ROOM FOR YOU AT THE ST GEORGES STOP COME AS SOON AS YOU CAN STOP I'VE NO IDEA HOW LONG I'VE GOT STOP CHARLIE STOP
It felt as though a ball and chain had tipped softly from the envelope in some sleight-of-hand magician's trick and wrapped itself around him. The old weight, the old friend, the old lie. Was he dying? Could Charlie be dying? Why couldn't he just say so? Troy had not seen Charlie since 1957. He had asked much the same of him then. 'I've taken a job in the Middle East. See me off. Just for old times' sake. It'll be the last time.' Now this was the last time. The last time for what? Could Charlie be dying?
Rod's voice cut through his reverie. Troy looked up from the telegramme to see Rod suddenly sober, casting off the Michelin outfit.
'I have to get up to London. God knows how, but I have to.'
Gaitskell was the 'Hugh' of the telegramme Rod had just read. Leader of the Opposition and, since it was received wisdom that 1963 would be an election year, the next Prime Minister. He and Rod, of much the same age, class and education, fought like cat and dog and were stubbornly loyal both to each other and to the party. For Gaitskell to die now would be a political inconvenience and a personal tragedy for Rod.
'The phones will be on soon,' Troy said. 'Driffield just told me.'
'Did he say how the roads were?'
'See for yourself,' said Troy, pointing out through the open door at the snowbound drive and the three-foot-deep trench Driffield had carved in it.
Around the corner at the end of the drive, where the curving line of beech trees – resplendent green in summer, crisp brown in winter – shielded the house from the road, a petrol-driven vehicle – Troy could on first sight be no more precise than that – appeared. Preceded by the peristaltic grunt of its engine, it rounded the curve, entered the trench and chugged towards the house in a shower of obscuring and enveloping snowdust, ripping out the slender tracks of human feet into a wide chasm in the white wilderness of Mimram. It was a motorbike. A motorbike with sidecar. A motorbike with snowplough. A motorbike with sidecar and snowplough driven by an extremely fat man in a leather helmet and an old Second World War London County Council Heavy Rescue Squad navy-blue greatcoat.
The motorbike sliced through the drift immediately in front of the porch, and the snowploughing contraption deposited a pile of snow almost six feet high in a V-shape to either side.
The Fat Man pushed up his goggles.
'Wotcher cock,' he said to Troy.
Troy looked down at the contraption from the safety of the porch. He had never seen anything like it. The blades of the snowplough bolted neatly to the front forks of the bike and shot off at a tangent to bolt themselves to the front of the sidecar. A large, round-knobbed lever on the handlebars appeared to raise or lower the device at the Fat Man's whim via a pantograph. He had even put snow chains on the tyres, attached an army-surplus five-gallon jerry can of petrol to the back end, and seemed to be transporting a large hessian sack of something in the sidecar. It was a bike for all seasons, this one in particular.
'What's in the sack?' said Troy.
'Pignuts. I thought you'd be low on pignuts by now.'
'We're low on everything. You wouldn't happen to have a loaf of bread or five pounds of spuds in there too?'
'I'm 'ere to feed the pig, not you lot. You can fend for yerselves. But the pig – she needs lookin' after.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Little White Death"
Copyright © 1998 John Lawton.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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