Friday, 6 April 2018

How Troy Came To Be by John Lawton

@Nick Lockett

It’s on the first page of Moby Dick, possibly in the first paragraph — Ishmael saying how he has circumambulated the ‘Isle of the Manhattoes’ and once more found himself nurturing a yen to go to sea.

I get that a lot. As I can’t swim, it’s always been worth resisting the impulse. Most of the time I wouldn’t even set foot in a paddling pool. But what I identified with was Ishmael’s desire to kick the dust off his shoes and move and in moving to reject the where, what and who.  Hit me like a sack of spuds dropped from the loft in 1983. I was getting nowhere … Ph.D stalled, relationship collapsed, health dodgy, work all but extinct, country four years in the grip of a madwoman from Grantham. 

I moved to Spain.  Tended orange groves.  Painted villas.  Lived in the shadow of the Rock. Startled the locals with the whiteness of my skin. 'Yes, the sun does shine in England, just not, when I'm around'.

I was writing nothing — I saw myself as a playwright/screenwriter in those days, but after about a dozen none had been staged or filmed, and I’d had but one commission which fizzled out without me getting paid. I was reading, and, slow as I am at reading, within a month I’d read everything I’d stuffed in the backpack. So I got on the bus to Fuengirola where I had heard there was an English language bookshop, and when I found it I soon realised that it was probably stocked with books tourists left on the beach.

I bought Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. Shook the sand from the pages.  Cliché it may be but … I couldn’t put it down. A wonderful central character in Arkady Renko, a rich setting in Moscow under Brezhnev. It occurred to me, and I was right, that it would spawn a sub-genre of cold war fiction set in Russia, focusing off the war onto life and crime in Russia.

I decided my own approach had better be more oblique. I got back to England to find it was 1984. The most anticipated year in history — as though we’d been told the date of the second coming well in advance. I wondered when London might ever have resembled Moscow, and the answer I came up with was 1944. Not only was that winter as cold as Moscow, the wartime regulations on just about everything had turned England, effectively, into the benign version of a totalitarian state.

I wanted a traditional detective, traditional in that he would be at Scotland Yard in the days

when it was on the Embankment, a stones throw from Big Ben, and coppers still drove Wolseleys. Traditional in that he would be unarmed. And then I got fed up with tradition. The stalled Ph.D was lame product of me having studied Russian language and literature once upon a time … to make my copper of Russian descent wouldn’t be difficult.

I ran it by my agent.

A screenplay with that plot? It’d cost the earth. It’s not a play it’s a novel.”

But I wasn’t a novelist. So I shelved it. Got myself a job — the only time in my life when I’ve worked in an office (dire) and been on salary (not as reassuring as you might think), and if anyone is remotely interested my novella Bentinck’s Agent is a fairly accurate depiction of two years as a London literary agent in the 1980s. Read and despair.

I still needed a name for my hero.

I spent the next few years at Channel 4 – or as we used to call it Chanel No.4 — and if the book world was staid and lazy, television was anarchic, chaotic and about a thousand times more fun. You might die from lack of sleep, but that’s by the bye. You learnt to keep your passport in your back pocket. One year I worked out I’d got on a plane every ten days. No matter. During the 1988 C4 Russian Season I found myself propping up a bar in Soho with the Moscow rock critic Artemy Troitsky … and at last I had a name, Troitsky became Troy.

In what gaps there were I wrote a couple of chapters. At some point in the early 1990’s I showed them to Ion Trewin at Hodders.

Marvellous seventeenth chapter. Where are the preceding sixteen?”

I admitted I hadn’t written them. Yet. Television had ruined me for linear narrative. I wrote the way I filmed. I wrote what was in me head at the time and ‘edited’ it afterwards. I still do.

Come back when you have.”

I took him at his word. About thee years later I dumped the finished Black Out (not a title I had chosen, I am indebted to Ariana Franklin for that — in those days she read what I wrote ahead of agent and publisher) on his desk. The desk was now at Weidenfeld and Nicolson. He bought the book as standalone. I disappeared into the heat haze of Mississippi for Chanel No.4. When I got back … things had changed. I must have set the controls on the Tardis wrongly and materialised in a parallel universe. I was one of the winners of WH Smith’s Fresh Talent … and a sequel was anticipated, expected. But I wasn’t writing a bloody sequel.

Troy has now made eight appearances in his own right, and two as cameos in my Wilderness books.

Do all series begin this way?

Friends and Traitors by John Lawton (Published by Grove Atlantic on 5 April 2018)
It is 1958. Chief Superintendent Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard, newly promoted after good service during Nikita Khrushchev's visit to Britain, is not looking forward to a Continental trip with his older brother, Rod. Rod was too vain to celebrate being fifty so instead takes his entire family on 'the Grand Tour' for his fifty-first birthday: Paris, Siena, Florence, Vienna, Amsterdam. Restaurants, galleries and concert halls. But Frederick Troy never gets to Amsterdam. After a concert in Vienna he is approached by an old friend whom he has not seen for years - Guy Burgess, a spy for the Soviets, who says something extraordinary: 'I want to come home.' Troy dumps the problem on MI5 who send an agent to debrief Burgess - but when the man is gunned down only yards from the embassy, the whole plan unravels with alarming speed and Troy finds himself a suspect. As he fights to prove his innocence, Troy discovers that Burgess is not the only ghost who has returned to haunt him...



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