In 1934 Vienna concert pianist Viktor Rosen, a Jew in exile from Germany, teaches Meret Voytek, a ten-year old cello prodigy, but three years later as the Nazi menace approaches Rosen packs up his possessions and leaves for London.
Meret is not Jewish but she sees the effect on her city and her orchestra of the Nazi race policies; later she is arrested as a political prisoner and sent to Auschwitz.
Ironically Viktor Rosen, and Hungarian physicist Karel Szabo, who was working at Cambridge, are sent to the British internment camp on the Isle of Man along with a disparate foreign born group that includes Rod Troy, brother of Inspector Frederick Troy, the main protagonist of the series.
The big man replied in flawless English that he was, "fine with English," and Kornfeld readily deduced that this was yet another long-term resident, doubtless convinced of his own Englishness, caught in the net of a foreign birth, and contradictory truths.
"I'm Rodyon Troy, from Vienna. I think you will find quite a few of us are.
Physicist Karel Szabo is lucky and gets sent to Canada and from there to New Mexico to work on the Manhattan Project.
"I was thinking of a line from the Bhagavad Gita, 'I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' "
Moving on to post war London, the 1948 Olympic host city, the story becomes a police procedural with Frederick Troy investigating, in his inimitable style, a murder on the Northern Line of a Polish refugee.
Every country is pitching in to stop this event looking shabbier than it is. Between you and me it's a threadbare business, cobbled together, and I dearly wish the Mongolians or Mexicans were staging the games not us. We cannot afford it.
The story becomes imbued with large doses of English eccentricity and that considerably lightens the mood. A string of cameo appearances from lanky lunatic squadron leader Angus Pakenham, his spare false leg Ernest, crazy Polish pathologist Kolankiewicz, Jack Wildeve, Guy Burgess, doctor Anna Pakenham in a backless dress, and Quentin Crisp brought a smile to this reader's face.
"And so you find me here. Maudlin pissed, very much alive, chatting to a bloke on his way to a fancy-dress do. Once he gets the fruit hat on he''ll be a dead ringer for Carmen Miranda."
Troy thought better of explaining that Mr Crisp was in his everyday garb and said instead, "And you called me why, exactly?"
A Lily of the Field deals with very serious subjects, the death factory at Auschwitz, the Nazis destruction of the artistic and scientific life of Central Europe, the beginning of the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, spooks, codes, guns and the problems of post war austerity Britain, but it still keeps at its centre the charmingly eccentric Frederick Troy-part Endeavour Morse, part Bulldog Drummond.
This superb novel confirms John Lawton as one of today's finest writers of historical fiction.
The Troy series is definitely one not to be missed if you are interested in the social and political history of twentieth century Britain.
Troy novels in chronological order with links to my reviews:
Riptide [Bluffing Mr Churchill in the USA]
A Lily of the Field
A Little White Death