Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Black Out

An Inspector Troy Thriller

by John Lawton

“This fine novel repeatedly brings to mind le Carré—for its elegance and style, its intricate suspenseful plot, [and] its intimate knowledge of a seemingly shattered time and place . . . A delightful, intelligent, involving book.” —Scott Turow, best-selling author of Presumed Innocent

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date July 12, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4556-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

John Lawton’s debut novel—first published by Viking in 1995, and now being reissued by Grove Press—is a stunning, war-time thriller that cements his place among the greatest crime writers of our era. The first of the Inspector Troy novels, Black Out singularly captures the realities of wartime London, weaving them into a riveting drama that encapsulates the uncertainty of Europe at the dawn of the postwar era.

London, 1944. While the Luftwaffe makes its final assault on the already battered British capital, Londoners rush through the streets, seeking underground shelter in the midst of the city’s black out. When the panic subsides, other things begin to surface along with London’s war-worn citizens. A severed arm is discovered by a group of children playing at an East End bomb site, and when Scotland Yard’s Detective Sergeant Frederick Troy arrives at the scene, it becomes apparent that the dismembered body is not the work of a V-1 rocket. After Troy manages to link the severed arm to the disappearance of a refugee scientist form Nazi Germany, America’s newest intelligence agency, the OSS, decides to get involved. The son of a titled Russian “migr”, Troy is forced to leave the London he knows and enter a corrupt world of bloody consequences, stateless refugees, and mysterious women as he unearths a chain of secrets leading straight to the Allied high command.


“Wonderfully captures the atmosphere of wartime London . . . original and entertaining.” —Robert Harris, author of Pompeii

“An exciting, fast-moving mystery set against the backdrop of the London blitz.” —Booklist

“This fine novel repeatedly brings to mind le Carré—for its elegance and style, its intricate suspenseful plot, [and] its intimate knowledge of a seemingly shattered time and place . . . A delightful, intelligent, involving book.” —Scott Turow, best-selling author of Presumed Innocent

“[This book] sweeps one along in a gathering flood tide of rich description, brilliant characterization, subtle political analysis, and breathless suspense. A masterful, spine-tingling thriller—except that every word in this compulsively readable book is true.” —Mark Danner, author of Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence, War


In the London borough of Stepney very little remained of Cardigan Street. Nor for that matter of Balaclava Street, Alma Terrace or of the untimely named Waterloo Place.

The Blitz had levelled them late in 1940. Four whole streets blasted into a sprawling mass of jagged, undulating rubble. In the spring of 1941 nature reclaimed them—blackberry and elder took hold, nettles thrust their yellow roots between the bricks, buddleia and bindweed appeared as islands in the ruins. By 1943 a wild garden covered the wilderness of war.

Winter. The first months of 1944. Children played a game of hopscotch chalked on the blue and red tiles that had been a kitchen floor.

The fat boy with the Elastoplast across his glasses was too clumsy to be allowed to play—an enforced bystander, he stood on the sidelines, bored by the game, occasionally staring into the eastern sky. The bombers were getting more frequent again. He’d missed them. Like any boy of his age he could tell a Dornier from a Heinkel, a Hurricane from a Spitfire.

If they weren’t up there, then there was simply one less game to follow. He glanced down to the low wall of black brick that separated what was once Alma Terrace from what was once Cardigan Street. A mongrel dog had leapt the wall with something long and floppy clenched between its teeth. The fat boy watched as the dog began a vigorous trot around the bombsite, cutting its own crazy course, across floors, over walls, through the fragmentary remains of windows, in and out of the open rooms, occasionally brandishing its trophy aloft and shaking its matted brown coat in an ecstasy of delight.

“Can you see that dog?” the fat boy asked his friends. They ignored him, their shouts drowning out his words. The dog didn’t pause, not even to piss. The circular course seemed to be growing smaller, towards an unknown centre. There was method in his madness.

“It’s got something in its mouth!”

Again he was ignored. The dog flounced, a shake of the mane, and as the fat boy turned to follow the dog’s diminishing circle it rounded him in a swift move and dropped the precious gift at his feet. The fat boy stared, anxious to believe what he could see clearly for the first time. The shaggy hound had handed him the ragged stump of a human arm.


Troy stopped the car beneath the railway lines on Ludgate Hill. It was pitch black and cold as hell. The fresh scar on his arm ached, his fingers were numb, and his nose felt ready to stream. He began to wish he’d made the journey in daylight, but something in blacked-out London held an indefinable appeal for him. He’d tried once to explain to his colleagues why he liked night work.

“It’s like walking on water,” he had said to no reaction. “It’s Jungian I suppose . . . I feel I’m being allowed abroad in the collective unconscious of the city.”

Laughter. The blasphemy of Troy’s first remark was beyond comprehension, this latter was merely risible, with its polysyllabics. If he were not careful Troy’s fondness of night would lead him to become a dirty old man. Worse still, they said, a complete bloody tosser.

Abroad in that vast, smothering breadth of night, but not alone. The pinprick of light he had seen became clear as a torchbeam. An Air-Raid Precautions warden was waving the torch at him as he approached the car. Troy slid down the window and waited for the usual catechism of cliché.

“You can’t go on . . . the Cathedral’s had a near miss . . . you should have turned off at Ludgate Circus.”

Troy answered softly, “Is the road blocked? I have to get through.”

“That’s what they all say.” The warden paused. Any second now, thought Troy, the inevitable would gain utterance.

“Is your journey really necessary?”

Troy knew—one day such aphorism would drive him to violence.

“I’m a policeman. Scotland Yard. I’m on my way to Stepney Police Station.”

“Can I see your identity card?”

Troy had sat clutching his warrant card. He raised his left hand off his lap and held the card under the torchbeam. The warden looked from Troy’s face to the card and back again.

“When I was your age I was in the trenches.”

Troy looked into the man’s face. He was almost entirely in shadow, but his age seemed clear enough; the clipped moustache, the received pronunciation, the creaking joints all bespoke a man in his fifties—a generation Troy had come to loathe, with their constant justification of what they had done in the war, their jingoistic fervour that their sons should also risk their lives in another German war—a generation of drawing-room drones, League of Nations naives, chicken-farming chunterers. Troy had long ago ceased to regard the ARP and the Home Guard as anything but a patriotic nuisance.

“I’m a copper. I think that says it all.” Inside Troy kicked himself. Why pick up the white feather?

“The war’s out there, sonny!”

No, thought Troy, as he pressed the self-starter and jerked the old Bullnose Morris into reverse, it’s here. War, like charity, begins at home. He turned south at Ludgate Circus and drove slowly down New Bridge Street. Eight years a policeman, five almost entirely spent on murder cases had led him to define all human relations in terms of conflict. The craters of Blackfriars and Puddledock yawned on his right. There had been a woman in ’38 who had put a knitting needle through the eye of a faithless husband. Upper Thames Street and the blitzed arches of Cannon Street station passed overhead. In ’41 a returning Buffs Major had dismembered a seemingly errant wife with a bayonet. Seemingly but not actually—he had gone to the gallows a contrite murderer of a blameless woman. Such cases required no solution—the murderers did not leave the scene of the crime, or if they did they walked into a police station a few days later and confessed. Looking south across Tower Pier the night over Bermondsey split open with the deep whumpf of a bomb, and a towering lick of flame rose brightly satanic into the starless sky. Here, or near enough, Londoners had bathed and paddled in the salt water of the Thamestide in hot summers between the wars, on the artificial beach carved out of the Thames reach, just by Tower Bridge. A boy of eight had drowned in ’39 in the last hours of peace—held under by his sister of eleven. Troy had patiently extracted her confession in front of disbelieving parents and withstood a cross-examination of fury in the witness-box. The litany could be endless. Only three weeks ago a man in Uxbridge had taken his wife’s lover apart with an axe and had swung at Troy as he arrested him, nicking a piece out of his arm. Into a grating third gear as the car rounded the top of Tower Hill, and a cluster of bombs ripped up the night over Bermondsey once more.

Drawn to the noise and light, Troy drove out on to the deserted bridge and stopped the car. London seemed to have shut down. He left the car and stood on the pavement. Looking downriver, the Luftwaffe were swarming out of the south to rain bombs on Rotherhithe and the Surrey Docks. It looked to be one of the heaviest raids of the year. Another massive bang, another pillar of light rising into the sky, and a rapid surge of flame shot out across the water. They were aiming for fuel tanks on the south side and had clearly found them. Petrol flooded out into the salty tidal surge to set the Thames on fire. Blue and orange flames danced like motley demons towards the bridge, where Troy stood watching the absurdly attractive pyrotechnics of war, the witching way the fireball transformed the blackest of nights into a flickering chiaroscuro parody of day. The sky crackled with the pop-gun fire of ack-ack shells, exploding softly and uselessly like bursting paper bags in the hands of children. Tracer bullets soared heaven-ward on trails of shining carmine. An age ago, in the Blitz, Troy had watched it come down—Hitler’s metal rain—preferring his chances in the open to the black holes underground. The gemstone sky of a night raid had never lost its fascination. On days when imagination and intuition held less sway than reason and analysis, Troy was inclined to see that this fascination might indeed be grotesque, part, perhaps, of some not so fine madness. A madness he had lately come to realise was far from unique. Tales had begun to circulate that Churchill drove his police bodyguard to distraction by standing atop Storey’s Gate, at the far end of Horse Guard’s Parade, to watch the show exactly as Troy himself was now doing. Of course, that was only rumour, but Troy had seen for himself the hordes of American soldiers clustered at the top of the Haymarket or on the steps of the National Gallery, staring wide-eyed into the south-east like winter natives stunned by the first burst of spring light. He had stood with a group of NCOs in Trafalgar Square, sharing their madness. One of them had turned to Troy.

“Nothin’ like it,” he had said. “Ain’t never seen nothin’ like it in the state of Kansas.”


Even the desk copper at Stepney looked as though he had been brought out of mothballs to replace a younger man now square-bashing in Aldershot or Catterick.

“Yes?” he said.

Why, thought Troy, does no one call me “sir”? Just once would someone ignore age and pay deference to rank.

“Sergeant Troy. I’m here to see George Bonham.”

He held out the warrant card again. The constable peered with straining eyes. Troy could be holding a dead fish for all he knew. He turned to the open doorway behind him and yelled, “Sarge! Someone for you!”

A bear of a man emerged from the back room. Size fourteen boots. The best part of seven foot when helmeted.

“Good of you to turn out, Freddie,” said Bonham, smiling broadly. He raised the counter-flap and stepped through. Troy’s extended hand was gripped momentarily before he received an avuncular pat on the shoulder that seemed as though it would shatter his spine.

“Let’s have a cuppa. You must be frozen. It seems ages since you were last here. Bloody ages.”

Leman Street had been Troy’s first station. The alma mater of nicks. He had served under George Bonham at the age of twenty-one—glad to be accepted at an inch under minimum height—and had been nurtured and protected by Bonham for reasons he couldn’t even begin to guess at. It had been Bonham who had urged him into plain-clothes. In 1939 the Yard had claimed Troy for its own. A rapid solution to a tricky case, together with the shortage of men in the phoney war, had made him into a sergeant a few months after the outbreak of war. Now, at almost twenty-nine, a brush with Bonham could still make him feel like a child.

In the back room Bonham set the kettle on its ring, and took a tea-caddy down from the shelf. Troy knew that Bonham’s love of old-fashioned English ritual could string out tea-making into infinity. He glanced around the room. It had changed not one whit in the time he’d been at the Yard, the same eggshell colour, deepened into every hue of cream and ochre by generations of cigarettes.

“You must be near frozen,” Bonham said again.

“George,” Troy said, hoping his impatience with the ritual wasn’t obvious. “Could I see it straightaway?”

“It’s not going anywhere.”

“All the same I’d like to see it.”

Bonham ambled over to the window, flicked the catch and brought a long brown paper parcel in from the window-ledge.

“Not having any ice I thought that was about the best place for it. It’s not likely to go off on a night like this, is it now?”

He set the frost-glistened package on the centre table and tugged at one edge of the paper. The contents rolled stiffly out on to the table-top. It was a human arm, male, hacked off crudely just above the elbow. It was a left arm, complete down to the fingers, the third of which still wore a gold ring. The forearm was covered by a coatsleeve in some woollen dog-tooth pattern. Beneath that a greying shirt cuff stuck out still held by a silver cufflink. Troy stared. Then he circled the table twice. He stopped, turned the arm over so that it was palm up and studied the hand. Several minutes passed in silence. As he leant back against the cupboard and took his eyes from the arm for the first time, the kettle whistled into the calm. Bonham slooshed out the teapot and pared off a portion of his diminishing tea ration.

“Who found it?” Troy asked.

“Kid. Late this afternoon.”

“Where did he get it?”

“Bombsite. Off east, towards the Green. Just came in, plonked it and ran. But that don’t matter none. I’ve known him since he was in nappies. We’ll have no trouble finding him again. His parents have a flat in the same block as me.”

“I’ll have to talk to him.”

Bonham set down the pot and two cups next to the arm and looked down at Troy.

“Not tonight, surely, Freddie? It can’t be that urgent.”

“How urgent can murder be?”

“Who said anything about murder?”

“Who sent for Scotland Yard?”

“That’s just a precaution. I was worried when it didn’t turn out to be one of ours.”

“No bodies without arms?” Troy said.

“I’ve accounted for everyone. I mean everyone. It’s not local. I’d swear to it.”

“There’ve been heavy raids all month. London is littered with bodies. We could build up a wall with our English dead.”

“Not one of ours. That I can tell you.”

“People dying all over London, George.”

“Not this one. We’ve lost a few this week. Poor sods too slow or too stupid to get into the shelters. But they’re accounted for. On my patch there’s no one missing. We’ve dug out and identified every body. And nobody with their arm blown off.”

“This wasn’t blown off or torn off, it was cut off.”

“I thought better o’ lookin’ that close meself. ”

“Four strokes of the blade at least.” Troy leaned closer to the cut end of the stump, his elbows propped on the table. “Something heavy, single-edged and broad. Tapered at the front.”

“Meat cleaver?”

“More like a machete or a bowie knife.”

Bonham handed a cup to Troy. The numbness in his hands shot into painful life against the heat of the cup. He winced and turned back to the arm. The fingernails were neat and trimmed, neither broken nor bitten. The tips of the fingers were heavy with nicotine—Troy could almost swear he’d found a Capstan smoker—but the curious thing was the number of tiny marks, darkened patches of stained and roughened skin. Burns or scald marks of some sort. Well-healed for the most part, but one or two somewhat fresher—perhaps a month or so old at the most. Troy felt the prick of pain in the split tip of his thumb. He sipped at the distasteful brew—only faintly reminiscent of a good pre-war cuppa. He circled the old elm table once more and stopped next to Bonham—shoulder to shoulder, but for the fact that Bonham’s shoulder was way above his.

“Oh,” Troy added, “and he was dead when whoever it was did this to him.”

Bonham slurped loudly at his tea.

“Bugger,” he said softly.

“Where’s the bombsite?” Troy asked.

“The kids call it the garden. It’s over towards Stepney Green. Most of it used to be Cardigan Street, before Mr Hitler.”

“I used to walk that as a beat bobby.”

“Well, you can walk it again tomorrow.”

“The boy lives in your block?”

“Ground floor back. Terence Flanagan. Otherwise known as Tub. No trouble that I know of. His old man’s a bit of a one for the bottle, but he’s more inclined to spoil the boy than take his belt off to him when he’s the worse for it. You know the sort. Showers the kids with everything that’s in his pocket from a farthing to a silver joey when the mood’s on him. But the mother’s a good sort. Keeps him on the straight and narrow”.

“I can talk to him in the morning?”

“If you’re up early enough. Stayin’ the night are you?”

“If that’s all right with you, George.”

“No trouble, bags o’ room. The place is half-empty after all.”

Troy knew better. Bonham and his wife Ethel had raised three sons in as many rooms. Two walk-through bedrooms and a living room less than ten by ten, with a galley kitchen that also held a bath. The only reason it seemed less than cramped to Bonham was because he’d never lived anywhere else, and the only reason he termed it half-empty was that his three sons were in the navy and his wife had been killed in the Blitz of 1940. Troy had eaten many times with George and Ethel Bonham in the late thirties—arriving in their lives just as the youngest boy had signed his papers for Portsmouth. The Bonhams had fostered, fed, and, as Troy saw it, educated him throughout his first year as a constable.

Bonham tucked his helmet under his arm like a ghost’s head and prepared to leave. Troy picked up the arm.

“You’re jokin’?” said Bonham.

“No, let’s take it.”

“Suit yourself.”

Troy rolled the arm back in its brown paper and tucked it under his own arm like a stick of French bread.

Bonham opened his locker and scooped a small, bloody, newspaper-wrapped parcel into his upturned helmet.

“A bit o’ somethin’ special.” He smiled at Troy. The smile became a knowing grin. “The butcher’s a pal o’ mine. He’s seen me right this week. Should stretch to two.”

He tapped the side of his helmet, much as he might have tapped the side of his nose, as though sharing some vital secret with Troy.

“I’m OK,” said Troy, tapping the frozen arm.

“Now you are jokin’,” said Bonham.