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OLD FLAMES by John Lawton Kirkus Star


by John Lawton

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-87113-864-6
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

A Cold War thriller that bids fair to catapult its author (Black Out, 1995) into le Carré/Furst territory.

It’s 1956. Chief Inspector Frederick Troy, of Scotland Yard, has the unenviable assignment of shepherding and translating for Nikita Khrushchev and his entire entourage during their visit to London. Troy, who emigrated to England from the Soviet Union as a child, can’t shake off memories of his WWII espionage assignments or the cruel suspicion that his father was a spy and traitor. Though Winston Churchill makes an amusing cameo, shuffling by Troy with the words “Harumgrrum werrumbrum,” the Khrushchev visit is mostly just a curtain-raiser for the main mystery that kicks off when a navy diver’s mutilated body is found in Portsmouth Harbour. Evidence indicates that it’s retired Lieutenant Arnold Cockerell. Cockerell’s wife insists that the corpse isn’t her husband’s, though she can’t explain his apparent disappearance. When it’s determined that Cockerell is, or was, a spy, the mystery deepens beyond identification of the body. Which side was he working for? The case turns out to have more layers than an onion. There’ll be additional victims, a duplicitous mistress, and the shadow of Khrushchev looming over everyone. Throughout it all, Troy’s personal life provides considerable distraction and enrichment. His dangerous old flame, a former KGB agent named Larissa Tosca, appears unannounced on his doorstep. (How dangerous is she? Lawton provides an early glimpse of her seducing an enemy, then breaking his member.) His wild sister Sasha needs constant monitoring, and his bourgeois-assimilated brother Rod abhors Troy’s involvement in a case with so many echoes of their past.

Lawton’s brooding, sophisticated prose effectively captures a troubled era. Peopled by flawed adults struggling to know and act on the truth in a time of moral turmoil, Old Flames is unforgettable.