What is it about tragedy that captures people’s attention? There have been reams written on World War II, so at first I thought it was the depicting of horrors that will soon be triumphed that was the key. But then I remembered Vietnam and the plethora of pages penned about that “conflict” (for I do believe congress never declared war). Perhaps, then, it’s the smaller stuff. The way the ordinary person deals with extraordinary events that lures our imagination into the waters of history. Whatever it is, this book had it.
This book is really two novellas thinly disguised as one novel. Together the two of them make one mighty fine story. That’s not to say the stories both carry the same feel. The first is a painful tale following two people, a cellist and a physicist, as they muddle their way through World War II in vastly different ways. The second is a British murder mystery staring one Inspector Troy. This is actually an installment in the series following the good inspector’s cases.
It may be subtle, but the difference between a melancholy story and a depressing one is there. The first novella Mr. Lawton gives us is, indeed, a melancholy one. Meret Voytek is a marvel on the cello, but has trouble with simple human emotions. Her father realizes this and when the opportunity to have her learn from one of the great musicians of the day appears, he seizes it. Then as the Nazis rise to power, the effects are soon felt in Miss Voytek’s native Vienna. Dr. Karel Szabo also feels the affects of the growing Nazi power. He’s interned first on the Isle of Man and then in Canada, thanks to his suspect nationality. The lives of the two of them are presented in a sweeping manner, never getting too in-depth in any particular life event. Such locales as the infamous Auschwitz and the barren New Mexico are backdrops for their stories. The war winds down and the Nazi flame is snuffed only to have the fire of Communism grow brighter.
It’s this threat that is the center of the post-World Word II tale that follows. Where the first novella touches briefly on so many events, this novella is more in the tradition of detective stories; getting down to the mundane details of life and describing simple events. Inspector Troy’s path crosses with Miss Voytek and in a case of it-really-is-a-small-world, he also happens to take lessons from the same man that taught (and in fact still teaches) her. The second novella’s workaday pace is expertly weaved with the melancholy feeling of the first. Complete with a colorful supporting cast, the tale as a whole treats the reader to a story that is sometimes haunting and sometimes humorous.
It’s magnificently written and the only detraction I can see is that it’s a thoroughly European story. British and Eastern European idiosyncrasies abound. I’m afraid I can’t tell if it’s accessible to me because of my familiarity with both historical fiction and British mysteries. So, readers unfamiliar with either may struggle to immerse themselves fully into the story. Whatever the case, though, it’s certainly worth a try.
One final note. I don’t normally include quotes, but I couldn’t help but pass on a pair:
“…[he was] one who didn’t suffer fools gladly (which was English for ‘rude’)…” p.286
“…the greatest lie of all is the ennoblement of suffering.” p.355