Second Violin attempts, I think, to be something of an epic; somewhat audaciously depicting many aspects of war time life both in continental Europe and in Britain and delving into all classes and communities. From the Austrian/German Anschluss in 1938 the book jumps through a series of seminal historical events including Kristallnacht, England’s declaration of War, the internment of various classes of ‘alien’, the London Blitz and so on. Somehow inveigling their way into all of these happenings are the Troy family which includes Russian émigré Sir Alex Troy, now a retired newspaper baron, and his two sons Rod, a journalist, and Freddie a police constable. One or other of them is centrally involved in all of these events (and then some) as the book hurtles, at pace, along. At about the three quarter mark there is a cursory police investigation into some curious deaths but potential readers should believe the author when he says the series that this book is part of is not crime fiction.
Surprisingly (perhaps) it wasn’t the lack of a mystery element to the novel that bothered me but rather its epic scope. I think I’d rather have seen a few events or incidents teased out with more depth than have an entire wartime experience condensed into 15 hours of listening. On multiple occasions just as I was becoming interested in some aspect of the story – a Jewish tailor’s flight from Vienna for example or the experiences of the fascinating mixture of characters in an internment camp on the Isle of Mann – I’d be whisked away to some other drama. Individually all of these events could probably power their own novel so I felt a bit cheated to have them all crammed into the one book. I was reminded a little of being back in school when history text books just skimmed the surface and threw up a lot of names and dates. What I wanted then and want still is to get behind all the facts and figures and with Second Violin I found myself tantalisingly close to doing that but never quite getting there.
This doesn’t stop the book from being both entertaining and insightful though. The process of identifying which ‘aliens’ would be locked up for the war’s duration, and how that process worked, was, for example, depicted as the farce we now know it to have been. The parallels with more recent political skirmishes are well-drawn although, I’m certain, would be entirely unseen by any powers-that-be who happened upon the book.
I did not find any of the Troy family particularly engaging as characters, feeling they’re all a little too unrealistic to be the kind of people I could truly grow to love. I admit this is unfair on my part as I am quite smitten by Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody who is at least equally as unrealistic and potentially allegorical as the Troy brothers and I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t take to the Troys more but there’s not a lot I can do about it. I adored some of the other characters in the novel though, including the aforementioned Austrian tailor and his part-Polish, mostly Cockney boss.
Unfortunately and unusually there was an aspect of the narration of the audio book that was a bit off-putting too. There didn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to the voices, in particular the accents, that the narrator chose to use. So Sigmund Freud (one of many real life characters to make a cameo appearance in the novel) has a vaguely Viennese accent while the German foot-soldier who helps the tailor escape has a Cockney accent. Most peculiar.
Overall then I liked this book but didn’t love it. Apart from being a bit too shallow for my personal preference I think the epic scope of the story resulted in a lack of narrative focus. You couldn’t possibly suggest that the investigation of the deaths that Troy carries out is the book’s focus as this doesn’t occupy more than a small fraction of the story and doesn’t start until close to the end. So to me Second Violin read more like a series of vignettes of ‘highlights’ of the wartime experience than a closely woven narrative and my preference will always be for the latter.
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Head to Crime Scraps for a much more positive review of the book
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My rating 3/5
Narrator Lewis Hancock
Publisher Oakhill 
ISBN N/A (downloaded from audible.com)
Length 15 hours 9 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series chronologically #1 in the Frederick Troy series, though published #6
Source I bought it