John Lawton writes great thrillers. Dense and moody, his Inspector Troy series channels Graham Greene as it dissects the personal stories that underlie international intrigue. Examining the political and personal fallout from the world wars, he can hold his own with contemporaries Alan Furst and Phillip Kerr.
But Lawton has been wandering off the reservation lately, trading in his tightly plotted and disciplined stories for something looser. In his last historical thriller, “Then We Take Berlin,” he created an entertaining shaggy-dog tale about a World War II-era crime and its aftermath, 20 years later. Although the book’s action jumps from Europe to New York and back again, its protagonist — Joe Wilderness — is from London, like so many of Lawton’s heroes. In the new “Sweet Sunday,” the author has jumped the rails entirely, writing in the voice of a Texan caught up in the political and social turmoil of the 1960s.
Turner Raines, the itinerant hero of “Sweet Sunday,” is a private investigator who specializes in finding draft dodgers for worried parents. Before settling into this dubious profession, he managed to be present at most of the cultural touchstones of the ’60s. He’s been a Freedom Rider and a Yippie, but most of the novel focuses on 1969, “the summer we went to the moon,” he recalls.
That was also the summer Raines’s friend, a fellow former activist turned reporter, was murdered. That the murder weapon — an ice pick — had Raines’s fingerprints on it could have forced him to take up the case to defend himself, but Raines’s alibi was quickly established. As he remembers, he ended up poking around in the case for purely personal reasons, and what he found makes up the bulk of this rambling tale.
This is a talky book, full of digressions, or as Raines puts it, “a reverie — the like of which I am prone to.” Often, these are revealing or amusing, and Lawton establishes Raines’s American identity both through the amount of profanity in his first-person narrative and the number of cowboy boots he owns. Thanks to his dry, witty voice, the book has a stream-of-consciousness momentum, full of literary and musical references.
These can, however, be too much of a good thing. Although Raines presents himself as a plainspoken man, Lawton has him namedrop something fierce: Buddy Holly, Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Wavy Gravy, Eugene McCarthy, Richard Nixon, LBJ, Frank Zappa, and George Wallace are all mentioned within the first eight pages.
These American touchstones also open the book up to error. Lawton — who lives in England — has lived and worked in New York, but too often his references read like they were taken from a tourist guide. The neighborhood near the Fulton Street fish market, for example, is characterized in two bland sentences: “A smell of fish hung in the air. A guy in a bloody apron pushed a cartload of lobster along the cobbles.”
And while a proud Texan might wax lyrical about a West Texas sunset, as Raines does more than once, it is unlikely he’d adopt a Saul Steinberg-like view of “Restofamerica,” as he calls the heartland once he’s moved to New York.
In addition, the book contains some sloppy anachronisms. Raines asks one worried mother how her son would have obtained a passport for his trip to Canada. Prior to 2009, US citizens didn’t need anything more than a valid driver’s license to cross that border.
Lawton is not concerned with details. In a “geographical note,” he admits to “playing fast and loose with history.” He even abandons the murder mystery along the way, resolving it with an afterthought. Instead, he has written an essay on the American experience. It’s an interesting character study. A thriller it is not.
Clea Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.