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Originally published Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Lit Life

John Lawton, British mystery writer, talks about 'A Lily of the Field' and Inspector Troy

British mystery writer John Lawton's new book, "A Lily of the Field," features the upper-crust Inspector Frederick Troy, a guy you love to read about but could never live with. Lawton reads Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store.

Seattle Times book editor

Here's a list of books in the Inspector Troy series by John Lawton, in chronological order of the time period the books are set in (earliest first): "Second Violin," "Bluffing Mr. Churchill," "Black Out," "A Lily of the Field," "Old Flames," "Flesh Wounds," "A Little White Death."
Author appearance

John Lawton

The author of "A Lily of the Field" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or

Lit life |

Every once in a while I get to run up the flag for an author I admire — this is one of those whiles. John Lawton is coming to Seattle t Tuesday, so this week's 500 words is devoted to the message that if you love mystery and history, run out and pick up a book by Lawton, author of the superb Inspector Troy novels.

In 2003, I read my first novel by Lawton, "Black Out," and immediately fell hard. Set during the London Blitz, "Black Out" was the first of seven books to feature Inspector Frederick Troy.

Troy is the kind of guy you love to read about but could never live with, the renegade scion of a wealthy Russian émigré family who discovers his vocation in being a cop. He does what he likes, when he likes, including taking every available opportunity to disgrace the British Secret Service (the Troy books have been called "anti-spy novels").

Troy's wealth and social status give him entree everywhere: "Most of my stuff is set before the '60s," Lawton told me in a phone interview, "well before the time a policeman called at the front door of an upper-class house. He would have been asked to call at the tradesman's entrance. That will never happen to Troy."

The latest Troy book is the just-released "A Lily of the Field" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24). The story of a young Viennese girl arrested by the Germans who becomes a violinist in an orchestra of Auschwitz concentration camp inmates, it's set both during World War II and in postwar England.

"Lily" is at once deadly serious, suspenseful and blackly humorous. Before he became a novelist Lawton wrote and produced for British television and counts as a muse Stephen Bochco, the creator of "Hill Street Blues." That groundbreaking television series was "deadly serious programming that could suddenly completely break you up with laughter," Lawton said. "Wit and humor don't actually undercut serious meaning."

Lawton's also a wizard at period detail. In the past he could research England's history by talking to people who actually lived through it. As they have passed away he's turned to used bookshops for material, stories of eccentric people who lived through interesting times. At New York's Strand Bookstore Lawton found the memoirs of Quintin Reynolds, a journalist who wrote from Paris and London during World War II. "Absolute pay dirt," he said.

With his total immersion in the past, Lawton seems not that eager to linger in the present. He quoted his old friend Gore Vidal: "Gore said to me once that a writer has no kin except what is between his ears. I've been known to go into virtual trances, writing in my head — I've done it for 45 minutes — come to, and say, 'where have I been?' Having spent time in the past, I find it much, much harder to live in the present."

Call to readers for a future column: Who's your favorite international mystery writer? Criteria: the writer is not an American and sets his or her mysteries primarily in other countries. Send your suggestions to mgwinn@seattletimes .com.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at

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