Review: Second Violin by John Lawton

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Head to Crime Scraps for a much more positive review of the book

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Narrator Lewis Hancock
Publisher Oakhill [2008]
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

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13 Responses to Review: Second Violin by John Lawton

  1. Norman says:

    Thanks for the link even though we disagreed about the book. 😉

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  2. Bernadette – I know what you mean about a book that’s a little too epic in its scope. I’ve had that happen to me, too. I may give this one a go, although it wasn’t one of your greatest reads of the year. I’m such a sucker for historical novels. But I’ll probably get the readable version as I think the narration might be off-putting given what you mention about it.

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  3. Barbara says:

    I don’t like books that try to cram too much into the narrative and put a character in the midst of the action no matter how much of a stretch his presence requires. Sounds like Lawton should have chosen one or two historical events or characters to weave a good story around. This reminds me of James Michener’s sagas, but at least his books were long enough to shuffle his characters around believably.

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  4. Maxine says:

    Nice review, Bernadette, thanks. This author comes highly recommended but I haven’t prioritised reading any as I don’t read historical crime fiction that often, as I tend to find it a bit studied. I know there is an “order” issue to this series (written in non-chronological order) so not sure if this is the first – but although you weren’t bowled over by it, your review encourages me to give it a go. Thanks.

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  5. Maxine says:

    Oops, sorry, just saw the bottom of your review stating that this is #1 – thanks!

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  6. Kathy D. says:

    I read an excellent essay by John Lawton which covered anti-Semitism in England among the elite and wealthy prior to and during WWII. I was a bit shocked to learn that Jewish immigrants AND those who sided with the Nazis a bit too much were interned in the same camp, off the mainland.
    That’s enough to traumatize any Jewish person fleeing prosecution in her/his homeland, to be sequestered among allies of those who forced them to leave everything behind.
    I don’t usually read books set in WWII but I found Lawton’s essay to be a contribution to my knowledge about this period in England.

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  7. It’s interesting you should mention Lawton’s essay Kathy because, frankly, the book felt a bit like one at times. He did tackle the subjects you mention but, for me anyway, there was not a lot of subtlety about his method and the need to tell a story, something I consider to be paramount in fiction, seemed to be missing from a good portion of the book. The author’s politics were overtly clear, and if by some chance you had missed it throughout the book you’d have caught on during the somewhat bizarre author’s note at the end.

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  8. Kathy D. says:

    That’s too bad that the story didn’t measure up. Fiction can be such a good conveyor of history and politics, but it has to tell an interesting story with characters one wants to know about; it can’t be written like an essay.
    I just finished A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn, a very good work of fiction which does tell a history and a story and is political — and one cares about the main characters. She did a great job, even if the ending was brutal. That was the truth then. Quite an amazing work.

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  10. CoorceVieno says:

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