Review: Friends and Traitors by John Lawton

Friends and Traitors by John Lawton is the eighth book in the Inspector Troy series―a story of betrayal, espionage, and the dangers of love.

Friends and Traitors by John Lawton will have readers riffing through their mental Rolodex of the infamous Cambridge Five. Who were they? When were they outed? Which of them ended up in Russia? In 1958, Chief Superintendent Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard is in Vienna with his extended family for part of his older brother Rod’s belated 50th birthday Grand Tour of Europe. Who should reach out to him but his old acquaintance Guy Burgess, wishing to be brought home out of the cold?

Troy’s memories of his first meeting with Guy Burgess coincide with his first days as a copper; it’s somewhat reminiscent of Lynda La Plante's Good Friday, another book revisiting the early professional days of a would-be Scotland Yard detective. Troy throws the cat among the pigeons when he’s introduced to Burgess at a family dinner party in Hertfordshire, July 1935.

“Rod tells me you were in Russia a while ago,” Troy said, hoping for and getting the desired effect.

No other word would have exploded into the room, slicing through all other dinner chit-chat, quite like “Russia.” Facing him were his uncle Nikolai and Baroness Budberg. Within earshot, his father, and just out of it, his mother. All of them Russian exiles.

All of them Russian exiles, and all of them intensely loyal to England, their adopted homeland. Unlike Guy Burgess. Troy’s wont when in the country is to listen to the late-night sounds of the countryside—the foxes and owls—but he’s saddled with Burgess, “the kind of bloke who’d never leave a party until physically thrown out.” Small silver lining, Burgess promises to introduce Troy to a London tailor who can give his “beat bobby” uniform a certain je ne sais quoi.

“No,” said Troy. “Of course I don’t want to be a beat bobby. I want to be a detective at Scotland Yard. I don’t mind being in uniform, but I’d be a damn sight happier if I had one that fitted. I tried it on just before you got here. I look like a weasel lost in a sack of spuds.”

“I used to get my Dartmouth cadet togs tailored at Gieves in Old Bond Street. They make uniforms for all our armed forces. Tell you what … if you’re doing nothing Monday morning, meet me there and I’ll introduce you to the old boys…”

This interchange sums up the tension between how Burgess acted (publicly) and who he was (privately)—because for all intents and purposes, he was “one of us” in English society, someone who went to the same schools, frequented the same tailors, went to the same dinner parties, and worked at the same papers.

After the tailor appointment, Troy goes out drinking with Burgess; he’d “been told that a chap doesn’t let a chap drink alone, so he’d drunk what Burgess drank, and to his detriment.” Unfortunately, his father and older brother Rod are waiting for him when he gets home “tiddly” at four in the afternoon. Rod is furious that his younger brother was seen “courting the company of one of the most notorious buggers in London.” Troy is getting a rude education in the ways of sophisticated Londoners—his brother isn’t just being “coarse”; no, Burgess is “as queer as a coot,” something the brothers’ newspaperman tycoon father knew when he hired Burgess as a writer.

“Hear me out, my boy. Burgess is a homosexual. I knew that when I hired him. It doesn’t matter. He is also a Soviet agent and that does matter.”

Rod and Troy looked at each other. Silent and wide-eyed. “And I did not know that when I hired him.”

Their father says he isn’t going to sack him even though he knows he’s a mole: “He’s rather good at what he does. I see no reason to sack him.” But because of their Russian background, he implores them to be careful. Here’s the kicker: Rod asks, “Then one question remains. Who do we tell?” 

“I say again. Who do we tell?”

“Tell? We tell no one.”

Friends and Traitors has Troy and Burgess meeting sporadically—casually (or so Troy thinks) over the decades—until there’s a climactic denouement that unravels the “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude of those in the British know over the years: someone is murdered to keep secret who knew about Burgess’s past. A page-turner that’s steeped in recent history, John Lawton’s eighth Inspector Troy is a real tour de force.


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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