Despite the fact that it’s possibly the strongest element in classic crime fiction, and I grew up reading Dorothy Sayers, I have no interest in ‘whodunit’ whatsoever. If I have to define what I do, it’s that I’m very interested in the relationships between people.
“If I ever say that I’ll set another story in the concentration camps,” says author John Lawton, “you have my permission to shoot me.”
If the comment sounds flip, it’s certainly not meant to be.
“You never become inured,” says English author Lawton of his research into the Nazi death camps. “I wrote A Lily of the Field  about a cellist in the Auschwitz orchestra, and to my amazement I found out, when I was about 50 pages into the writing of it, that the real cellist of the Auschwitz orchestra was still alive, and had written a memoir. Hence I was at pains to write a totally fictional character, and not in any way exploit a survivor’s memory. But that meant that I read not only her memoirs, I read maybe 15 or 20 other accounts too. And I was seriously depressed for a long time after I wrote that book. But once I created Nell, for some reason the prospect of Belsen opened up.”
Nell Burkhardt is one of the main characters in Lawton’s new novel, Then We Take Berlin. Set, as all Lawton’s novels are, in the period spanning WWII and the Cold War, the story follows Nell into the dark heart of Germany’s Nazi period as she attempts to provide succour to the survivors of the concentration camps in the wake of their liberation.
“I was looking at a photograph of a bulldozer shovelling dead bodies into a grave,” says Lawton, “and I realised that it was actually a British Tommy driving the bulldozer — the British were simply overwhelmed by the number of dead bodies, they didn’t know what to do with them. So I became intrigued by what had happened in the camps after the war. And what finally convinced me that I had to send Nell Burkhardt to Belsen was the story about the lipstick.”
In the novel, a Belgian survivor known only as ‘Bruges’ takes Nell’s lipstick and uses it as ‘a magic wand’, transforming herself from a skeletal ghost into a woman again. It was a scrap of historical research that made the whole period come alive for Lawton.
“I had to somehow work that moment into the story and make it not simply a recorded instance, but actually something very real about the way Nell related to the people who’d survived the camps.”
A former TV producer and writer (he worked at Granada TV at the same time as Lee Child), Lawton has published nine novels in total, seven of them featuring Scotland Yard investigator Frederick Troy. The WWII/Cold War settings have resulted in Lawton being acclaimed as the heir to John Le Carré, but despite the plethora of spies and double-crosses, Lawton offers a very distinctive take on the traditional spy thriller.
“Despite the fact that it’s possibly the strongest element in classic crime fiction, and I grew up reading Dorothy Sayers, I have no interest in ‘whodunit’ whatsoever. If I have to define what I do, it’s that I’m very interested in the relationships between people. With huge inverted commas around the word, I write ‘romances’.
“Americans in particular seem to think Frederick Troy is unnaturally promiscuous, but I think he has 14 relationships in 28 years — hardly promiscuity,” he laughs. “But I write about sex because sex is my subject, if you take sex as shorthand for the relationships between men and women. The way Troy relates to the women who blunder into his life is actually what I’m writing about. To some extent, ‘crime’ or ‘thriller’ is simply the framework on which those human relationships are hung.”
The relationship in Then We Take Berlin (a standalone title, although Troy does make a brief appearance) develops in Berlin in the wake of WWII between German girl Nell Burkhardt and Cockney lad John Holderness, a burglar co-opted by the British secret service for his unique skill-set.
The evocative settings, and Lawton’s background in TV, give the novels a cinematic quality.
“I developed a habit early on of regarding the central character as a camera,” says Lawton. “Someone said to me, and it was very flattering, that you could take one of the novels as a shooting script [for film]. Well, you couldn’t, but what they meant was that the visuals were very vivid. And considering that I’d begun as a playwright, writing nothing but dialogue, I was quite pleased that my descriptive powers had progressed to that point. An early draft of my work would look a lot like a George V Higgins novel.”
What is it about that particular period that draws him back to it time and again, even for standalone novels? “I was born not long after the war, and in the 1950s in England your Saturday afternoon matinee fodder was John Mills and Richard Todd re-fighting the Second World War,” he says. “I watched so many of those movies that there are times I’m amazed to realise that I didn’t live through the war. But the surprising thing was that while you saw all these things on the big screen on a Saturday, the older men weren’t talking about it. The only people talking about the war were those who’d sat it out at home. The ones who’d come back didn’t want to talk about it.”
The fascination with WWII is to some extent, he concedes, bound up with the ‘romance’ of it being ‘the last good war’.
“You can trawl through the history of that war to find things the British did that were wrong, crass or inadequate but it was still a good war in the sense that the good guys were fighting the bad guys, and the good guys just had to win. I honestly believe that if Hitler had got the atom bomb first, this planet would be a blackened cinder by now.”